- The Washington Times - Monday, August 15, 2011

In a downtown D.C. gift shop, a table teems with T-shirts, squared off and neatly folded. On one row: an iconic pop art-inspired image of President Obama, culled from a campaign poster, atop the one-word caption “Hope.” On the next: a smiling, waving George W. Bush, backed by the U.S. flag, behind a caption asking, “Miss Me Yet?”

One nation. Two shirts.

Polls, focus groups and fundraising tallies have their place — but if you really want to take the electorate’s pulse, go souvenir shopping. Money talks, and as the economy limps, our leaders snipe, and the rough beast of our divided government slouches toward next year’s presidential election, the political memorabilia tills have a tale to tell: For the president, it’s a scary one.

Downtown shopkeepers and cart vendors near the Mall said last week that Obama-related sales had significantly slowed — in part because of a traditional August tourism lull, in part due to the president’s sagging approval ratings.

Freddie Vinoya, a manager at Honest Abe’s Souvenirs at 1000 F Street NW, said that customers used to purchase more than three dozen Obama “Hope” T-shirts a week.

A President George W. Bush "Miss Me Yet?" shirt is displayed at Souvenir World in Northwest. The store also sells "NOBAMA: Keep the Change!" T-shirts.
A President George W. Bush “Miss Me Yet?” shirt is displayed at ... more >

“It’s still a best-seller, but not nearly as much,” said Mr. Vinoya, 34, a resident of Accokeek. “Sometimes, they hate Obama now. That’s why they buy the [Bush-themed] ‘Miss Me?’ shirts. We got those in last December.”

As political barometers, souvenir sales are hardly scientific — yet there are those who insist they are uncannily predictive.

“Come in here next year, and I can predict who will win the election,” said Dexter Morse, 45, a manager at the Washington Welcome Center at 1005 E Street NW, a popular destination for tourists and souvenir shoppers. “The last election, we had news crews from around the world, and customers too, all wondering why we had marked down our McCain-Palin stuff in October, before Election Day. The answer was sales. We blew the Obama stuff out. Just from that, we knew he would win.”

Before Mr. Obama’s inauguration, his Gallup poll approval ratings hovered between 60 and 70 percent. The corresponding souvenir market was white-hot — so much so that Jim Warlick, a memorabilia retailer who got his start hawking Ronald Reagan inaugural buttons in 1980, opened a store downtown devoted solely to the incoming president.

Now, that market is as sluggish as the nation’s economy.

Mr. Morse points to a set of shelves housing Obama-themed merchandise. There are books and baseball caps, jigsaw puzzles and bobbleheads. A street sign reads “Democrat Parking Only.” Three rows are stuffed with plush dolls modeled after Bo, the White House dog; an Obama 2012 T-shirt - the first of its kind — has a red, white and blue image of Hawaii and a caption reading, “50th State Birthplace. FACT!!”

“This section was almost sold out when [Osama] Bin Laden was killed,” said Mr. Morse, a District resident who has worked at the Welcome Center for six years. “But now that there’s [economic] turmoil, Obama’s sales are slow.”

Among souvenir peddlers, Mr. Morse’s observations are hardly unique. According to a spokesperson for online retailer CafePress, pre-election sales volume for Bush-themed merchandise in both 2000 and 2004 was “overwhelming,” while Obama outsold McCain by more than 30 percent in the weeks before the 2008 election.

Employees at online retailer Zazzle saw a predictive pro-Obama surge throughout the 2008 campaign.

“McCain and other candidates had their fair share of products, but not like Obama,” said Josh Neuman, Zazzle’s director of acquisitions. “It was pretty easy to see he had a good chance of winning.”

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