BENSALEM, Pa. (AP) — A shop selling President Donald Trump-themed merchandise in a suburban Philadelphia strip mall has emerged as a magnet for the president’s backers and a reflection of Pennsylvania’s status as a political battleground this year.
The Trump Store in Bensalem specializes in gear fit for the president's biggest fans — T-shirts promoting a border wall, hats, beanies, mugs with his cartoon face, even an inflatable innertube with Trump's head flashing two thumbs up. On a recent weekday afternoon, it did steady business over about three hours, with two to three customers continually streaming in and out.
The town is on a political fault line, tilting slightly Democratic in recent presidential elections, though Trump improved the GOP's fortunes in 2016 over Republicans' 2012 performance. Experts are watching the region as a key to the presidential race. In fact, Trump is slated to hold a town hall in Scranton on Thursday evening, about two hours from Bensalem.
Mike Domanico, the shop’s owner, is a former general contractor who got into the T-shirt business in 2017, when he noticed that the 10 or so Trump shirts he offered for sale at car shows sold out fast. Domanico, 60, himself a Trump backer who said he’s been following him since the 1980s, opened a kiosk in a nearby mall before expanding to the store early this year.
The shop does about 350 sales a day, with the average customer spending about $60, according to Domanico. The top sellers are two T-shirts, he said: one that has the president’s signature in gold above a brick wall and says, “Border Wall Construction Co." The phrases “Build the Wall” and “Deport Them All” are printed underneath.
The other alludes to former President Barack Obama, saying, “Trump 45 Because the 44 didn’t work for 8 years.” The shirt has a golden gun on it, an apparent pun of .45-caliber and .44-caliber handguns.
“People that love Trump, they really love him,” Domanico said. “They want to wear the hats, the shirts, bumper stickers and mugs. They want to show their support. I think that’s what it’s all about.”
The president's signature red caps, though, aren't in the lineup. Domanico said he wouldn't stock Make America Great Again or Keep America Great merchandise because of a trademark the Trump campaign holds on those slogans.
Political paraphernalia and candidate-specific merchandise is nothing new. The current crop of Democratic candidates offer merchandise for sale on their websites. In 2008, a poster depicting Barack Obama and the word “HOPE” came to symbolize his presidential campaign and was highly circulated.
But Chris Borick, a political science professor and the director of Muhlenberg College’s Institute of Public Opinion, notes something different about the demand for Trump gear.
“It’s the president’s standard approach to say stuff that’s over the top. He revels in it, and I believe a number of his supporters feel the same. They’re juiced to be able to actually find ways to do that. You see the flags on houses and big signs, hand-painted signs, all part of that showy image,” he said. "There’s not a showman better than Donald Trump and folks like to be part of the game.”
Jim Smith, 56, is a tractor-trailer driver who recently moved to Hazelton, Pennsylvania, though he was a lifelong Bensalem resident before that. He was making his second visit to the shop recently to stock up on T-shirts. For him, they are a way to grab people’s attention.
Smith said he plans to give them out to people who “are sitting on the fence” politically. “It’s a conversation starter,” he said.
Dave Russell, 75, and Ron Soto, 82, both of Levittown, Pennsylvania, stopped by the store to buy a couple of shirts. Russell said he was pleasantly surprised to find there was enough demand to support a shop.
Russell, an Air Force veteran who retired from construction, said he came out to buy a “Veterans for Trump” shirt to show his support. He said Trump was the only president he remembered keeping promises.
“The politicians would tell you they’re going to do this, they’re going to do this, they’re going to do this. And then they get into office and the first thing they would do is tell you why they couldn't keep the promises they made," he said.
The shop sits in a strip mall, about 20 miles from downtown Philadelphia, along a busy road between a Guatemalan bakery and a travel agency. A worker at the bakery declined to discuss the shop, but Anu Mathew, who works at the agency called Riya the travel expert, said the shop seems to have increased foot traffic and has been good for his business as well.
Bensalem, in Bucks County, voted for the Democrat in the last two presidential elections despite Republicans’ cutting into Democrats’ margins. Trump won Pennsylvania over Hillary Clinton by less than 1 percentage point in 2016. The county's voting record in 2012 and 2016 reflects Bensalem's; but despite swinging for the Democrat in the presidential, Bucks voters went with the GOP for the U.S. House in 2012 and 2016.
Both Democrats and Republicans view Bucks as heavily in play in 2020, according to Borick.
“If you’re Donald Trump and you can perform well in a place like Bucks County, you’re probably going to win Pennsylvania,” he said.