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What the CafePress Merch Meter Didn’t Predict for the 2012 Elections… And Why

Direct-to-Garment printer CafePress has a “Cultural Barometer” of sales records it’s been using to track trends of support for 2012 Republican presidential contenders. Here are the CafePress Barometer’s readings from November 14 through December 31 of 2011.

Shares of GOP Presidential Contenders' T-Shirt Sales on CafePress from November 14 to December 31, 2011

Just a few days after the point of last tracking, the 2012 Republican Caucuses in Iowa reported these results:

Mitt Romney: 30,015 votes (24.6%)
Rick Santorum: 30,007 votes (24.5%)
Ron Paul: 26,219 votes (21.4%)
Newt Gingrich: 16,251 votes (13.3%)
Rick Perry: 12,604 votes (10.3%)
Michele Bachmann: 6,073 votes (5%)
Jon Huntsman: 745 votes (0.6%)
Herman Cain: 58 votes (0.01%)
Buddy Roemer: 31 votes (0.01%)
Gary Johnson: 0 votes (0.00%)

Did the CafePress MerchMeter match Iowa results? Nope. Rick Santorum was the recipient of nearly no enthusiasm in campaign paraphernalia, even in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses. The Ron Paul wave online (also reflected in enthusiastic Ron Paul web postings) did not translate to Iowa caucus enthusiasm, even though Paul actively campaigned in Iowa. Michele Bachmann’s lesser online popularity also failed to materialize offline.

What does this mean? There were reasons to think that CafePress sales might have reflected tendencies for caucus results. Buying a shirt regarding a presidential candidate requires commitment, both in the spending of dollars and in the decision to wear that candidate’s name on one’s body going forward. Such commitment levels are more likely to lead people to show up for a caucus. On the other hand, the sales reflected a national trend, while the Iowa results reflected, well, Iowa — hardly a representative subgroup of the American population.

There are reasons to think that perhaps the CafePress results better reflect Republican rank-and-file sympathies — it is national-level data, and the local Iowa caucus results aren’t any more binding than CafePress’ sales statistics. Did you know that the nominating delegates from Iowa aren’t actually going to be picked based on caucus results, but rather will be selected at a later party convention? Yep, it’s true: the Iowa Caucuses are essentially just a beauty contest in their literal effect upon the GOP presidential nomination. They weren’t a real election any more than statistics on shirt sales are a real election…

… except in the sense of the Thomas Theorem, that something is real if it has an observable consequence in reality. Because Americans have decided to grant the Iowa caucuses a reality in consequences for presidential campaigns, they are socially real — and nobody’s decided to grant the CafePress “cultural barometer” that kind of legitimate reality. Is our collective decision right? What set of numbers ought we to respect more?

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