Candidates court millennials with 'hipster' swag

Story highlights

  • Attracting millennial voters is key for the campaigns
  • Real hipsters wouldn't be caught dead with some of this merchandise

(CNN)This holiday season, the thirst is real.

Presidential hopefuls on both sides of the aisle are selling dreams out of their online campaign swag shops, hawking everything from "vintage" tanks and tees to koozies and kitschy Christmas sweaters.
The pitch is aimed at both younger consumers and, for marketing purposes, their gift-hunting parents and grandparents. The bait is apparel, accessories and signage that wouldn't look out of place on the racks of an Urban Outfitters or a Salvation Army thrift store.
    For the hipster kids on your holiday list, it all adds up to a painfully -- which is to say, perfectly -- lame smorgasbord of gift options.
    So how did we get here?
    The calculations are pretty simple. While the haul from hoodie and keychain sales is not going to make or break these colossal campaign enterprises, their enduring value stretches way beyond dollars and cents. More than any mug or mason jar, the candidates for president are peddling personal brands. There is significant and undeniable value in having these logos and slogans seen dashed across the chest (or cotton tote) of a bright, boastful, perhaps even hip young (outer borough), city dweller.
    That in mind, we took a virtual stroll through the candidates' sites and rated some of their choicest offerings. This is a big field, so not everyone made the cut. (Chris Christie, we should note, does not have a dedicated store.) The grades, which range from one monocled hipster's head to four, measure the article in question's likelihood of appearing -- ironically, of course -- in the wee hours of an off-the-grid Brooklyn rooftop beer bust.

    YAAAS or no?

    For the uninitiated, "yaaas" is an extra enthusiastic "yes" that's been meme-ified, codified and appropriated by the mainstream popular culture. For our purposes and Hillary Clinton's, the "Yaaas Hillary!" tee, featuring the candidate's high school senior portrait, is a neat appeal to her longed-for progressive base. But for that reason -- the absolute sincerity with which it will be worn and its easily accessible message -- this design scores only two monocles.

    Who is that mustached man?

    Jeb Bush's odds of emerging from the GOP primary fight are looking hairy -- just like his face did in the 1970s, when he sported a "sideburn-mustache combo that would make Burt Reynolds blush," according to his online store.
    Though his campaign is ailing in the polls, Bush's merchandising effort is surging online. There are "Jeb!" camo caps, snapback hats, hoodies, mason jars, tumblers, and — don't tell Trump — $75 "guaca bowls" for sale! Almost all of it would look appropriately inappropriate in a sawdusty bar serving pickle back shots and dollar cans of Tecate or PBR. The "vintage tank" pictured here is already near sold out, and for good reason.
    Four monocles!

    Better off Ted

    The "ugly Christmas sweater" is in the late stages of its pop revival. Luckily for Ted Cruz, the concept received a nifty boost this holiday season from the rapper Drake, whose often-parodied dance moves on the video for his "Hotline Bling" have been immortalized in a series of wool or cotton "sweater sweatshirts." The twee moguls on Etsy have no fewer than nine variations currently for sale.
    With that, enter the Texas senator and his "limited edition Christmas sweater," a perfectly odd specimen. Featuring Cruz's Mona Lisa smile under a broken off Santa hat, flanked by two versions of the snake and the motto, "Don't tread on me," from the historical Gadsden flag, all splayed across a perfectly 80s red and white Christmas sweater, this ridiculous $65 sweater is an undeniable three-monocle hit.

    Mocha con Marco

    The rivalry between Cruz and his senate colleague, Florida's Marco Rubio, is heating up on the campaign trail, but when it comes to hipster gift fodder, there is no competition. Rubio's shop is stuffed with plain and plainly reasonable fare, from an unremarkable half-dozen "Marco Polo" shirts to a gently self-mocking water bottle (Rubio, you'll recall, has difficulties staying hydrated.) Take this sloganed mug. There's some wordplay, but it's hardly eye-rolling. Good for coffee, espresso, maybe even a latte — but definitely not a sneaky morning whiskey. One monocle.

    Bern notice

    If we've learned only one thing this long pre-primary season, it's that the internet loves Bernie Sanders. The #FeelTheBern hashtag is, Trump things aside, 2016's preeminent piece of cultural and political cross-pollination. In his swag shop, Sanders nods (over and again) to the sensation. There is a mug labeled, "CAUTION! CONTENTS MAY CAUSE A SERIOUS BERN." And so on. Still, the 74-year-old democratic socialist senator from Vermont, a rollicking campaigner with a certain Betty White-style appeal, remains a mainstream curiosity. With Bernie, there isn't much room for droll parody. (Over-the-top send-ups, like Larry David's on SNL, tap a different vein.) But with a little digging, we turned up this lovingly lame tote bag. "I'm totes votin' for Bernie," it boasts. An eye roller, indeed, and so an ideal vehicle for one unread hardcover edition of "Anna Karenina," two spare sets of tube socks, and three monocles.

    Big Ben

    Ben Carson here plays on the painfully pervasive "Keep Calm and Carry On" merch craze. The term, first thought up and slapped on propaganda posters by the British government during WWII, was mostly forgotten before it began to crop up again on posters and t-shirts six decades later. In any event, the candidate with the preternaturally calm disposition has repurposed it, again, for his website shop -- "Let everyone know it's time to 'Keep Calm and Carson On' with this hip red tee, is the pitch. Our verdict: Grab one, then wait. For two years. A perfect gift for the coolest kid you know... in December 2017.
    Two monocles for now.

    Rand's pall

    Rand Paul's store has no fewer than 10 subcategories, including but not limited to "Kids," "Car decor," "Signs" and "People Love These." But what from this treasure chest will the hipster in your life truly love? We've zeroed in on Paul's "Filibuster Starter Pack." The $30 kit includes a "spy blocker" clip to cover one's laptop web cam, a t-shirt proclaiming, "The NSA knows I bought this Rand Paul bumper t-shirt" and a bumper stick to the same effect. It's all very knowing and a sure delight for any of the conservative/libertarian's dedicated band of true believers. But therein lies the concern. Odds are, if you're a Paul supporter, people already know it. So while pairing the tee with a tweed blazer could stir some cocktail chatter, it wins Paul only one monocle.

    Huckabee cool, folks

    Good news for "Huck" here. The long arc of campy fashion bends toward the non-utilitarian use of hashtags. Having gone out of style as a result of coming into the mainstream in 2010-2011 — around the time people began saying things like, "hashtag amazing!" -- its use on his "I'm With Huck" t-shirt is so uncool it is, once again, kind of cool. The only setback here is that, in this cycle, Mike Huckabee has been mostly an afterthought and the casual beer hall dweller probably won't know this "Huck" from Mark Twain's. Twain, incidentally, wouldn't have had to change much about his look to fit in with the modern hipster community. Let's give the former Arkansas governor two monocles and move on.

    Ice cold, Clinton

    First question: What'd you think of the "Grillary Clinton" BBQ apron? Pretty awful, right? Right, which is to say it was pretty great. Same goes for the "Chillary Clinton Can Holder Combo." Real America calls these things koozies, which only adds to the charming dissonance. A closer look reveals its full message, which reads, "More like Chillary Clinton amirite?" Literally. Dying. Amirite. Three well-deserved monocles for Team Clinton, making their second appearance on the list.

    That hat

    First as farce, but now? The Trump campaign has, of course, been one big, unremitting fantastic and classy success -- so far. In what can only be described as a brilliant middle finger to Karl Marx, the Donald's signature hat has traveled a reverse historical trajectory to what the German philosopher described in the mid-19th century. The call to "Make America Great Again," even when expressed in stitches on a boxy bulk order cap, has become a very potent political statement. Bottom line: This is not something that needs to be reckoned with when there is another round of "Cards Against Humanity" to be played!
    One monocle for Mr. Trump, sir.