National Insights

Why election merchandise sales aren't an effective proxy for the U.S. election

By Constantine Valhouli  |  November 1, 2020 7:59 AM

Image via Huffington Post

The New York Times recently ran a fascinating piece on how an unusual data set – the production and sales of U.S. election merchandise in China – suggested that Trump was leading Biden.

The wholesale market in Yiwu, China, has 70,000 shops generating $70 billion in mostly wholesale transactions. Indeed, the Chinese government regards the region as a proxy for the light manufacturing sector overall, and maintains a Yiwu Index of average prices in shops.

We wanted to take a moment to explore this data analysis through some of the same lenses that we would use to analyze real estate data.

Oblique and adjacent data sets can be valuable parts of any analysis. For example, one can estimate how many people are in a building by oblique data sets, such as the number of rooms where the motions sensors have been triggered. In some cases, when a primary data set is not available or has quality issues, one can infer tremendous amounts from a secondary data set.

But the election merchandise in China doesn't seem to be one of those cases.

First off, there is a fundamental difference in the way that campaign merchandise is used by the two political parties in the United States. The Trump campaign has used its distinctive red baseball hats as a populist visual trademark. The Trump flags are regularly flown from the back of pickup trucks and motorboats. The Biden campaign has no visual equivalent for these – or, perhaps, no need for one. It brings to mind Harold Macmillan's response when Oswald Mosley was trying to get Britain's fascists to wear black shirts like their Italian counterparts: "You must be mad. Whenever the British feel strongly about anything, they wear grey flannel trousers and tweed jackets."

There is also a difference in campaign styles rooted in the two parties' different approaches to the pandemic and social distancing. Trump relies on rallies that are visual spectacles with significant merchandising. Biden has focused on online events.

As a result, there is a fundamental difference in consumption styles that underpins the two data sets. As a result, one might not draw the same conclusions from the differences in spending on campaign merchandise.

Apart from the sales data itself, there is cognitive dissonance in that both parties – one trying to "Make America Great Again" and the other looking to strengthen the weakened American middle-class and economy – are both producing their campaign gear in China, Vietnam, and Malaysia rather than supporting the American factories and American jobs that could benefit from the millions of dollars being here.