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Campaign Buttons Predict Winners

by Gregory Watkins (10/27/08).

What we collect says a lot about ourselves as a nation. Our collectibles tell us a lot about where we’ve been. And sometimes, what we collect can be an indicator of where we are going. A case in point is political-campaign buttons.

An “I Like Ike” button on your lapel told everyone where you stood on the issues of the day and for whom you intended to vote. It is an individual statement on an individual election. But can campaign buttons—or more specifically, campaign-button sales—be used as an accurate predictor of election results?

The country liked Ike twice

Jim Warlick, WorthPoint’s political Worthologist, has been conducting this unscientific poll since 1988, and his results have accurately predicted the president every year except for 2000.

Warlick, who is an expert in U.S. political and campaign memorabilia, had always thought that the sales of campaign buttons, placards and signs would be a better indicator of how an area was going to vote, as opposed to telephone polling, because in phone polls, there is no accounting for fibs and white lies told to pollsters to avoid embarrassment.

2008 campaign pins for Obama-Biden and McCain-Palin

“People take it very seriously,” said Warlick, who tracks the sales of buttons at his store, Political Americana, and shows and political events around the country in compiling his statistics. “We tell them upfront that we are measuring this, and when you purchase the button, we are going to put that into a poll and release it to the press.

“Here’s the reason we think it works. If people are called in a telephone poll, they may say they intend to vote, but they may not. A lot of people are ashamed to say they aren’t going to vote. If somebody comes up and they intentionally give you $3 for a button, and they know that that button is being tallied and released to the national press, then it’s pretty reliable. Literally, they are putting their money where their mouth is.”

An array of McCain buttons

Republicans for Obama

Warlick started his button poll on a lark in 1988 when he was in Iowa for the Democratic and Republican caucuses. “I had been selling political buttons for years at rallies, and I thought, ‘Why not start measuring this and see if there is any correlation between what people buy and the way the results turn out.’”

So based on his button polling that January, Warlick’s successfully predicted that Pat Robertson would finished second behind George H.W. Bush, a shocker to everyone else. The button poll “knocked it out of the park,” Warlick said. “I beat the Des Moines Register. I was the only one to pick up the Pat Robertson vote.”

Pat Robertson in ’88 button

Warlick has been out every four years since, tracking button sales to predict the next president. His poll has been spot on in every election since 1988, except for razor-thin 2000 election where George W. Bush lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College vote over Al Gore. For that mistake, Warlick said, “We say we can’t account for buttons that don’t get counted.”

This year Warlick said that there are some anomalies in the button sales, a direct result of John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate.

“We did see a bump up in McCain-Palin in the first week of September, the second week of September. That’s faded off now,” Warlick said, adding that while Barack Obama is still holding a lead, it’s not as wide as it was this summer. “In the summer, it was 8-to-2 Obama, but now it’s about 6-to-4 Obama.

Sarah Palin pin

“We’ve never seen before where a VP candidate has pushed the ticket up or down in any way. We were getting a lot more requests for Obama material as opposed to McCain. But when he added Palin to the ticket, people not only wanted more McCain-Palin, they actually wanted just Palin campaign buttons,” Warlick said. “The lower part of the McCain-Palin ticket is more popular than the top of the ticket. We’d never seen that before.”

Michelle and Barack Obama giving a congratulatory bump

Warlick releases the results of his poll on the day before the national election, so on Nov. 3, we’ll get a look at which candidate’s buttons sold best, and, therefore, will be—according to the poll—the next president.

If you’re interested in collecting campaign buttons, be sure to see visit GoAntiques, WorthPoint’s partner site.

And be sure to view the Campaign Buttons: An Election Poll video.

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