Campaign Junk: How NOT to Win on Election Day

Campaign Junk will waste your money and time. It will limit your ability to communicate your winning message to voters.

What is Campaign Junk?

Campaign Junk would be combs, dry erase pads, coffee mugs, shirts, shorts, sweats, hoodies, rulers, magnets, sunglasses, potholders, mouse pads,  etc, etc, etc etc.

These items are sometimes purchased by well meaning people in a campaign.  But they are often purchased by the candidate.


Brian keeps this mug on his desk as a reminder to avoid Campaign Junk. Brian’s candidate, Chris Mac Arthur, spent his time and money talking to voters not on Campaign Junk. Chris beat Donna 57.53% to 42.47% on that 2007 Election Day.

Campaign Junk burns up money.  It wastes staff and volunteer time.

I have seen boxes of un-opened Campaign Junk sitting in campaign offices after Election Day.

Boxes of bumper stickers (another waste of money), t-shirts, refrigerator magnets (who cares),  pot holders, mugs, and a wide variety of junk  that was paid for and never used.

Campaign professionals are constantly having to deal with this crap when they should actually be helping their candidate communicate with voters.

It is like space junk.  All those bits and pieces of spent rocket boosters, and blown up satellites  that are floating in outer space.

Junk accumulates and now has to be maneuvered around to avoid disaster.

Campaign Junk is like comfort food.  It makes you feel good while you are consuming it but withing a few hours you are hungry and tired and mad that you indulged.

There is no end to the various items that slick vendors sell to political campaigns.

These people are great sales people that are taking your money and offering your campaign nothing.

My First Experience with Campaign Junk

It was 1992 during the Clinton-Gore Campaign.

I got a call from a vendor selling Bill Clinton Sunglasses.  Clinton had been on the Arsenio Hall show playing a saxophone and wearing  sunglasses.

The glasses became kind of a trade mark for Clinton and images of him wearing these glasses showed up everywhere.

So this vendor wanted to sell me these glasses.  They were guaranteed to get votes, be treasured by volunteers ,and to be an excellent – “sure thing” – she said- fundraising tool.

She asked me what we were doing for fundraising and I told her we were asking donors for money and would be having a few fundraisers ( probably more than I should have told her).

Her response was that was an old school approach and was likely not going to work. That these glasses were again a “sure thing”.

The glasses were $3 per piece.  I told here I would take three pairs.  She responded that the minimum order was $1,200.

I declined, got off the phone, and suddenly realized what a racket the campaign business could actually be.

There were actually people in our office that really wanted me to purchase these glasses.

I see it all the time.  Generally with a new candidate, but sometimes seasoned candidates.

The Coffee Mug that Mugged My Friend’s Campaign

A person I have known for years was running for city council in a medium sized California town.

He was a  first time candidate, but someone that had been around campaigns for decades.

He raised enough money to do a few pieces of mail.

Rather than send out mail, he purchased coffee mugs.

Put a letter in the mug and left them on as many peoples front stoops as he could before election day.

To his credit he did include a fairly well written letter in the mug, but he could have more effectively mailed that letter and made sure that every voter that he needed to read that letter would have that opportunity if they so desired.

Over 50 percent of the voters in that city voted absentee, so he missed most of them.

He also did not make it to as many likely Election Day voters as needed.

To make a long story short, he lost the Election.

And he actually was not that far off from winning.

Think what a few good mail piece could have done to change that outcome, even just a targeted letter.

Too much money was spent on an item that carried no message.

Sure, these items help attract attention.  They might help with name identification to some extent, but realistically, your name identification should be built by having a powerful message and offering the voters a real political choice.

The Judicial Candidate and the Refrigerator Magnet-Ruler

There was a judicial race not too long ago in Los Angeles County where one of the candidates had a lot of money, more than the opponent.

For what ever reason the campaign decided to spend a big chunk of it on a refrigerator magnet that doubled as a ruler.

I wish I had saved a copy of one to show you, but I threw mine away.

Anyway, LA County is a big county.  And even with our dismal voter turnout you are still talking about hundreds of thousands of voters countywide.

I don’t know how many of these magnets they mailed out, but it had to have been a lot.  My wife and I got one, as did my mother in law.

Every one I know that is a frequent voter got the magnet-ruler.

This magnet-ruler was in an envelop with a letter.  The price of postage must have been through the roof to mail something so heavy.

And guess what?  The candidate lost.

Could that money have been spent on getting the campaign message out more frequently and more consistently to votes?

Probably so.  The refrigerator magnet-ruler may have cost the candidate the race because the final vote tally was very close.

Every time you spend your money on these neat little items they cost you votes.

Pot Holders May Make You Look Sexist

For years, from the late 1980’s up until about 2000, every campaign in California, that could afford it, just had to send a pot holder mailer to women.

We did these on every legislative and Congressional race I worked on.

Constantly we had angry women calling in to our campaigns because they felt we were stereotyping women.

They felt we were implying that a woman’s place is in the kitchen.  And only women cook.

Personally, I think they had a point.  I know a lot of tough guys that like to cook and cook every night for their families.

And hey, I like to cook.  Anybody that says only women can cook – whatever!!

In politics you would be wise to stay away from simple stereotypes.

Back to the pot holders.  Every body was spending a lot of money on them in those days.

Purchasing the pot holder, cost about $.25 or more per piece, if you bought like 20,000 of them.

They also had to be hand inserted in a large envelop.  This either required a ton of volunteers or a a lot of expense at the mail house.

Postage on mailing these items was also astronomical.

And all you got out of it was some name identification.

Incidentally, the pot holders were not actually high quality to begin with.  Thank God no one does these any more.

Here is an example of a pot holder.  I blacked out the name.

The candidate was well prepared for the job and was actually an excellent and hard working candidate.

But this was a close race and those extra dollars spent on a pot holder that had essentially no message could have been spent more effectively on persuading a few more voters in this incredibly close election.

Edited Pot Holderedite 2 pot holder

A Pot Holder that Held Nothing for the Voters

In 2011 I was involved in a Los Angeles City Council race.

I was not the lead consultant. I was managing the field program.

The lead consultant convinced the candidate that we should do a pot holder mailing, like was done in the old days.

One point to keep in mind is that the candidate was championing his record of creating jobs through his local restaurant and resort that he owned and operated.

We mailed out the pot holder.

The pot holder was inserted into the envelope by the mail house and the campaign actually never saw them in person, just a jpeg image.

Evidently, no one noticed that the pot holder had a tag that said “MADE IN CHINA”  .

For a candidate championing local jobs to so blatantly use a product that was made in China was a disaster.

The voters definitely took notice.

Our opponents (rightfully so) seized on the opportunity to rake us over the coals.

We lost that race and the pot holder mailing probably cost us the price of two or three mailers.  Not a good investment.

This pot holder may have sank our campaign.

The Mothers Day Rose

I have seen campaigns walking door to door on Mother’s Day and handing out roses to women.  Seriously?

Not all women are mothers.  And if I was a mother, would I really want to get a rose from some person that I don’t know?

Is someone going to vote for you because you gave them a rose? Of course not.

Also, Mothers Day is special day, it is an unofficial holiday, meaning you don’t bug people on that day.


Can you imagine purchasing several hundred of these and having your volunteers lug a bunch of roses around and hand them out door to door?

When considering the time, money and coordination that goes into this.  It is just another well meaning waste of time and money.

Campaigns are a GOLD MINE for Campaign Vendors Pushing Campaign Junk

Some people really like Campaign Junk.  They have some personal affliction for some nifty looking item.

Get a hold of yourself.  Don’t waste your time and money on Campaign Junk.

Remember, the people selling you these items and are insistent that they will attract attention and get you votes, are just salespeople.

These vendors are people, most likely, without any experience managing campaigns.  They are just hocking junk- Campaign Junk.

Don’t waste the time of your staff and volunteers to obtain these items.

On any sized campaign, staff and even volunteers should be treated like professionals.

Buying and distributing toys, which is what campaign junk is, is not what political professionals do.

Really, you are just giving some vendor a pay day.

Yes, Campaign Junk will Cost you Votes

For the cost of many of these items you could do another mail piece, a robo call, another pass of paid live calls, another couple of questions on a poll.

Spending money on these items moves you further away from actually communicating with the voters.  It ultimately loses you votes.

A coffee mug, a rose, a potholder, a comb, a ruler, a magnet will communicate nothing.

Sure you get some limited amount of name identification, but that’s the job for yard signs, not Campaign Junk.

You win campaigns by reaching voters.  You win by sharing a powerful message with voters.

You don’t win by giving some vendor money because it makes you feel good.

As a seasoned political professional I stay way away from campaign junk.

You should to.