2020 Elections

These political super fans turn their activism into collector's items

Key Points
  • For some collectors, political memorabilia is more than just a way to show support for candidates. It's about holding on to pieces of history.
  • Campaign buttons remain the most popular political collector's items, but some fans seek out more offbeat pieces, such as Bernie Sanders puppets.
  • "Memorabilia tells the [political] story much more than documents or books," one collector says. "It brings it to life."
Leslie Zukor with one of her Bernie Sanders puppets.
Photo: Nate Gowdy

Leslie Zukor is such a Bernie Sanders super fan that she has more than 500 pieces of campaign merchandise and memorabilia dedicated to the presidential hopeful.

Buttons make up 80% of her collection, but she has plenty of more offbeat items, too — including 10 custom puppets modeled after Sanders. Each cost her between $100 and $500.

Whenever she sees a chance to buy more merchandise and show her Sanders support, "I just jump at the opportunity," Zukor said. She estimates she's bought at least 50 posters, some of which are limited-edition ones that each sell for $27. "I'm into what makes him who he is today, and I love his passion for activism."

Zukor says she has spent over $1,000 on Sanders campaign merchandise this year alone. While that may sound like a lot to people who aren't politics junkies, it actually pales in comparison to what some other hardcore collectors spend. These people often have tens of thousands of political items in their collections and belong to national groups such as the American Political Items Collectors, or APIC.

Two APIC members, Bren Price and Mark Evans, each have collections in the thousands, with items dating back at least a century. Price thinks of himself and his collector peers as "household curators of the artifacts of American political history and its players." Some members, Evans said, have collections that are worth at least a couple million dollars.

Among the most famous of these political collectors? CNN's Jake Tapper, who has a room full of memorabilia from presidential candidates who lost.

"Memorabilia tells the [political] story much more than documents or books," Evans said. "It brings it to life."

Buttons are sold at a rally for U.S. President Donald Trump in El Paso, Texas, U.S., on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019. Trump and prospective Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke took part in dueling rallies in Texas on Monday, with each using the president's proposed border wall as an early proxy for the 2020 election. Photographer: Adria Malcolm/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Adria Malcolm | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Most campaigns with stores up — every candidate excluding Joe Sestak, Tom Steyer, Wayne Messam and Bill de Blasio — either declined to comment or didn't disclose how much money they've made so far through just campaign merchandise purchases. A spokesperson for Pete Buttigieg said the campaign has made nearly $1.9 million so far from online merchandise sales, a third of which came from sales of conventional items such as shirts, mugs, stickers and signs.

Federal Election Commission reports show how much each candidate collected in terms of individual contributions, but the FEC doesn't require that candidates disclose whether those donations are pegged to merchandise.

Another APIC member, Kyle Lientz, collects merchandise related to President Donald Trump's candidacy. Lientz said he has every official button released by the Trump campaign since 2015. "I am proud of our president, and I want to show my support," he said. But, Lientz added, he also appreciates the chase that comes with finding each button.

Read more: From Bernie Bucks to the 'No Tie' look – Inside the quirky world of 2020 campaign merchandise

It might be surprising to learn that collectors of campaign and political merchandise, which often carries nostalgic and historical value, skew more toward the younger side of the electorate.

According to Dan McCall, owner of libertarian-flavored online political merchandise store LibertyManiacs, a little over 50% of all his customers are between the ages of 25 and 44. (McCall gained some notoriety in 2016, when the Sanders campaign sued his site for selling "Bernie is my comrade" shirts. LibertyManiacs still sells the shirts.)

Most of his customers, according to demographics he sent to CNBC, are from the United States. The bulk of his buyers live in California, Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois. Cities with the highest sales include New York, Washington and Portland, Oregon.

There's even demand for American campaign merchandise from overseas, according to McCall. It's about the pull of a candidates' ideas as much as it is about collecting, he said.

Andrew Barakat, a product manager for a FANG company wears Yang gear that stands for "Make America Think Harder."
Jennifer Elias | CNBC

U.K. resident Jack Hare likes how Democratic candidate Andrew Yang, who is pushing for guaranteed monthly payments of $1,000 to U.S. citizens over 18, talks about technology and its impact on the working class. "Him doing well will also spread these ideas overseas, too," Hare said, who has bought items including a Yang MATH shirt and his book "The War on Normal People" from online marketplaces such as AliExpress.

Despite all the books and novelty items, campaign buttons, which have been used since George Washington's run, seem to be the most popular among collectors.

One collector, Marc Sigoloff, explained that buttons may take longer to track down, especially if collectors try to find limited-edition ones directly from supporting PACs or campaign rallies.

"They are pieces of history," he said. "And the new buttons offer a challenge that doesn't exist in other hobbies."