HARRISBURG, Pa. — The guru of Republican political memorabilia, Jonathan Binkley, has no plans to build much of a collection in honor of Donald Trump, he said here at the biennial convention of the American Political Items Collectors.
“Oh, I’ll pick up a few things,” Binkley said. “But I’m not going to go overboard.”
Meanwhile, the Clinton collectors club didn’t even bother to meet. At the same time, the best-selling current campaign items, vendors say, are $3 buttons that ceaselessly mock the two presumptive presidential nominees.
In other words, the mood among collectors here last week pretty much reflected the 2016 election writ large: Modest enthusiasm on either side for the nominees, but great contempt for their opponents.
Granted, these are folks far more likely to get excited about a $60 set of Dwight Eisenhower’s plastic cattle-shaped meat picks, a $75 Calvin Coolidge cigar or a $365 pin depicting George McGovern as Robin Hood. Still, of the 450 or so collectors and enthusiasts who attended, few weren’t swept up in the partisan political passions of the moment.
But what is popular, in this case, didn’t yet translate to much value.
“There will be hundreds of thousands of Trump pins,” said vendor Stephen Mihaly of Gibsonia, Pa. “It takes time and distance to see what turns out to be valuable or becomes rare.”
That is only now starting to happen for the ephemera related to President Obama, even though an enthusiastic collectors’ club formed within the organization in 2008, when he became the first African American major-party candidate. At a meetup of that group, about 30 members spoke of the need to put together an “official” list of Obama campaign items to help guide future collectors.
It’s a never-ending job, said Cary Jung of Sacramento, the Obama chapter founder, given that private vendors created thousands of versions to supplement the campaign’s own official (and therefore usually more valuable) offerings. And subtle differences can drive value.
“The campaign changed the style at some point where at first it was just an upper-cased “O” and then they made it all capital letters,” Jung said. “When I see it with the uppercase and lowercase, I buy it. I just really like it. And they’re scarcer.”
To be sure, the convention offered a wide range of the expensive and cheap, the offbeat and the usual. An empty can of Reagan-Bush beer and a Spiro Agnew jigsaw puzzle were each priced at $10, half the cost of a Clinton-Gore toy bus. A delegate badge from the 1956 re-nomination of President Eisenhower runs $33, a pin from the 1908 Confederate veterans reunion was $195, and a pin from the early 20th century urging votes for women’s suffrage ranged from $16 to $1,200.
Meanwhile, a campaign flag for Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential election garnered $22,000 at an auction during the conference. One collector, Lon Ellis of Raleigh, N.C., estimates his 1920 campaign button from the losing Democratic ticket of James Cox and Franklin Roosevelt is worth $30,000, but it’s not for sale.
New pins for current candidates went for about $3 apiece, or 4 for $10, but they’re also so mass-produced it’s unlikely any will hold their value even if the candidate they support wins. Case in point: Reagan-Bush ’84 matchbooks were available at seven for $5, while a bowl that priced everything inside it for $1 each overflowed with Dukakis-Bentsen buttons and pins with Bill Clinton’s face that read: “Re-elect Chelsea’s Dad!”
But for losing candidates, the market is particularly rough. A McCain sub-group that sprung up in 2008 disappeared after he lost; various Romney buttons were on offer for as little as a dime a piece. (An odd exception: A cartoon Romney pin with pasted-on googly eyes and the words “The Eyes Have It!” was available for $25.)
On the other hand, early Obama items — from his state and U.S. Senate races, but especially his failed congressional campaign — are now becoming more desirable.
“Usually, also-ran buttons don’t hold much value at all unless later they get the nomination or the presidency,” said Binkley.
Still, Scott Mussell, co-chair of the conference, envisions an appetite down the line for items associated with Trump, Clinton, Bernie Sanders and even some of the GOP also-rans in the same way 1968 memorabilia — notably that of Democratic primary loser Eugene McCarthy — still excites many people.
“Bernie Sanders has a Eugene McCarthy quality,” said Mussell, the Americana specialist for the York, Pa.,-based political memorabilia auction house, Hake’s. “I’ve seen as much interest in Bernie stuff as Hillary stuff.”
Many from across the political spectrum are hoping that if Clinton is elected, more women and girls will take an interest in the hobby. They don’t now, vendor Cathy Hosner of Kalamazoo, Mich., theorized, because middle-aged white men have long also had a lock on elective office.
“As more women achieve more in politics, I am hoping that will change,” she said.
But for now, the convention drew an overwhelmingly white, male and middle-aged crowd. And they were busily buying what Hosner called “the anti’s” — pins that skewer the opposition.
Among the hot-selling anti-Trump buttons, one sported a tuft of orange cotton with the tag, “We shall overcomb,” while another shows an image of Clinton eyeing a small space between her thumb and forefinger paired with the words “Size Matters” above, and “Hillary Evaluates Trump” below.
On the other side, an anti-Clinton pin asked, “If we can send a man to the moon, why can’t we send Hillary?” Another showed her with wild eyes and the slogan, “Time to get wise, you know she lies.”
These fit into a long-standing American political tradition; Wendell Willkie, the GOP businessman who lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, is revered in these circles for producing dozens of anti-FDR slogan pins with zingers like, “We don’t want Eleanor either.” Another, from the 1980 primary campaign and targeting the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, reads simply: “Nobody drowned at Watergate.”
To be sure, there were enthusiastic partisans here with their own tales to tell. Charles Lavine of Lawrenceville, N.J., wore several buttons in support of Clinton, including one that spelled her first name in Hebrew letters and another that claimed (prematurely) “Bernie Sanders supports Hillary for President 2016” and hoped “#Bern4Veep.”
Another pin on his lanyard likened Trump to Shrek, the wall-building ogre of screen and stage.
A few weeks ago, Lavine says, he made it to the rope line for a Hillary Clinton event and showed her a pin he found with the slogan “Hillary Trumps Them All,” which had the first names of all of the 2016 GOP also-rans in small blue lettering around the rim. When the candidate told him she’d never seen that one before, he asked her to sign it.
“I was almost trembling,” he says. “I mean, I’ve seen presidents going back to John F. Kennedy. I’ve been all through this. But when she signed that, I just looked at it and, oh my God, I took the thing off and I put it in an envelope and said, I can never wear it again!”
Likewise, Mike Snowden and his brother, Richard, of Cornell, N.Y., are known in the group as the most inveterate Trump fans. They have produced and sold thousands of Trump buttons over the past year, typically at rallies or other GOP gatherings. At rallies, aspiring first son Eric Trump seeks out Richard Snowden (who has attended nearly three dozen of them) to collect each new pin, according to Mike Snowden.
What’s more, Trump, being an experienced celebrity, is “into signing anything you give him,” Snowden says. “Politicians today, they’re not accessible. Trump, when I see him work that line, he stops, he talks to people, he stays there as long as people are willing to have a conversation. I haven’t seen a politician campaign like that in 40 years. I think he passes [Nelson] Rockefeller,” the longtime New York governor whose 1966 campaign pin Snowden wore to commemorate what would have been Rockefeller’s 108th birthday.
Still, if the conference reflected a fractious political time, it also showcased an ability to get along. The varying contingents of partisans coexist happily, joined by their reverence for history and their passion for acquiring such artifacts.
“We’re all friendly, we all love each other, because we’re all collectors,” said Roger Lowenstein, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society , who presented a seminar on his collection of 1960s civil rights memorabilia. “We all suffer the same horrible psychological ailment of collectors, which is you can never fill this gaping void of need. We try to do it with buttons.”