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Reagan/Bush '84 T-shirts grab votes as the hot GOP accessory of 2016

Former Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush shows off a Reagan/Bush ’84 T-shirt in Miami in September. 
Former Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush shows off a Reagan/Bush ’84 T-shirt in Miami in September. 
Published Jul. 19, 2016

The hottest Republican accessory of the 2016 presidential campaign? Nope, it isn't the red cap that says "Make America great again." Nor is it the T-shirt that says "Hillary for Prison 2016."

The hottest Republican accessory of 2016 is a T-shirt touting … Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Watch closely at this week's Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and you'll see folks roaming around in "Reagan/Bush '84" T-shirts. You can buy them just about anywhere — Amazon, Etsy and niche retailers like Conservative Outfitters, which lists numerous Reagan/Bush items among its best sellers, including infant onesies and iPhone covers. Jeb Bush wore one of the shirts during a campaign event last fall. Even the Republican Party itself sells "official" Reagan/Bush tees on GOP.com starting at $27.

"We know how much you love Reagan-Bush '84 swag," states the site, which touts the shirts as a "throwback to the days of strong, principled leadership in the White House." The party also sells Reagan/Bush pins, stickers and coffee mugs because, as the party states, "Reagan-Bush '84 memorabilia is classic."

"Conservatives are all about history," said University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus, a collector of campaign apparel. Reagan/Bush '84 attire has long been visible at Republican gatherings, rallies and conventions, she said, "but definitely not to the degree that it is this year."

From a fashion standpoint, there is nostalgic, lighthearted appeal to wearing campaign apparel from 1984. Some Amazon sellers even tout Reagan/Bush gear as "funny retro vintage style" or "parody" apparel, though most wearers these days seem to be doing so earnestly.

"Clothing has become a big part of politics, especially with millennials," MacManus said. "Bumper stickers just don't hold the allure, and neither do signs in the yard. But clothing is something you can wear, and it's relatively cheap, yet you influence a lot of people."

Shane Sheltra wore a navy Reagan/Bush T-shirt with a blue and white Reagan/Bush trucker cap in June to a Tampa rally for Donald Trump. Both were borrowed, as Sheltra was visiting from St. Augustine, and this was the only political gear he could rustle up from a friend. But he said he liked the retro look, and appreciated the Trump-Reagan connection.

"I feel like a lot of people give (Trump) backlash because he comes from a TV show background, so he's in the entertainment business," said Sheltra, 31. "A lot of people don't understand that Reagan started his career out in the same business. He was an actor as well."

"It's patriotic," added his friend Jessica Kobryn. Sheltra's shirt belongs to her husband Brian, who couldn't attend the rally.

"He loves the Bushes and the Reagans," she said of her husband. "He wants to make America great again."

There's that ubiquitous phrase: "Make America great again." It's synonymous with Trump, but do you know who coined it? Yep: Ronald Reagan, during his first campaign in 1980. When conservatives talk about returning this nation to greatness, it's possible they're thinking specifically about 1984, with a rebounding economy and Cold War victory on the horizon.

While Republicans have taken the Oval Office since, Bush's victory in 1988 and his son's wins in 2000 and 2004 lacked the decisiveness of Reagan's 1984 win. He carried 49 of 50 states, a resounding statement of support that — barring a miraculous healing of this nation's deep political fissures — might never happen again.

"The unity theme is critical," MacManus said. "They're the out party now, and they face (being) the out party for the third time in a row."

Wearing a Reagan/Bush '84 tee, then, is a bit like wearing a shirt with the logo of your favorite sports team (Republicans), rather than a jersey of a particularly player (Trump). It's also a bit like a Tampa Bay Bucs fan in 2016 wearing a 2003 Super Bowl Champions T-shirt, ignoring all the up-and-down years since.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.