BY JIM KANE
In a recent article in the Sun Sentinel, reporter Brittany Wallman described candidates’ experiences in the August primary about dogs they encountered while canvassing likely voters in Broward County and how political consultants use pictures of dogs with their candidate in their direct mail.
The article anecdotally suggests that dog owners are more likely to vote, and, more importantly, use a candidate’s dog ownership as part of their selection process.
In my 40 years of studying politics, I have never encountered any empirical evidence that “dog owners” were more likely to vote or that dog ownership was helpful in winning votes.
In fact, I can’t recall even a single political survey that included a question on dog ownership (although I’m sure someone has).
Mitch Ceasar’s dog ad during his primary committee race.
But the article did pique my curiosity, so I decided to see if there was any empirical evidence that confirmed or rejected this idea that dog ownership plays a substantive role in political campaigns. Not surprisingly, I found no studies on whether likely voters have dogs or not.
The research does, however, describe likely voters as better educated (and consequently, have more income) than non-voters and this would seem to suggest the ability and means to include a dog in their household. But again, this is pure conjecture.
On whether dog-owning voters utilize a candidate’s dog ownership in their vote choice, I found research that was right on point by one of the more respected political scientists in the field, Diane Mutz (no pun intended) from Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.
Using the extensive National Annenberg Election Study, which contained questions on pet ownership, she was able to investigate whether dog ownership affected the vote for president in 2008 (“The Dog that Didn’t Bark: The Role of Canines in the 2008 Campaign,” PS: Political Science & Politics, Vol. 43, No. 4, 2010).
Dogs Part Of Politics
Dr. Mutz hypothesizes that pet ownership and, dog ownership in particular, has been an essential ingredient in American politics since George Washington. In fact, if one counts horses as a pet, Barack Obama was the first president elected who was pet-less.
During the campaign, she notes, Barack Obama made a widely covered promise to his children that after the election (win or lose) he would buy them a puppy. This promise, she argues, may have backfired on Obama since it publicized his lack of pet ownership and alienated a significant portion of the dog-loving population.
Mutz argues that group identification, in this case dog ownership, led some voters to choose McCain (who had dozens of pets) over Obama. Political scientists have long understood that voters use heuristics such as ethnic, racial and gender, but this is first time I have heard of dog-owner identification.
When it comes to pet ownership, the Annenberg data indicates Republicans have a leg up. In particular, Republicans have a 6% lead over Democrats when it comes to owning dogs (and also fish).
In an AP poll prior to the election she cites, dog owners supported John McCain 43% to 34%, but this could reflect, of course, more partisan differences than dog ownership.
In testing her theory, Dr. Mutz creates a statistical model (OLS) to determine if dog ownership has an independent impact on voters’ perceptions (thermometer ratings, a favorability scale) of McCain and Obama. Her complete model not only controls for partisanship, ideology and views of the economy, but an exhausted host of demographic variables, including born again Christians and gun ownership.
This extensive model finds that dog ownership, independent of all other variables, gives McCain a three-point advantage in thermometer ratings over Obama. A three-point edge may seem somewhat trivial, but it exceeds McCain’s advantage with born-again Christians. Using a vote choice model (Logit), dog ownership decreases an Obama vote by 16%!
This study has not gone by unnoticed by the Obama campaign.
The campaign staff has set up a Facebook web page entitled “Pet Lovers for Obama” featuring, of course, the first dog, Bo Obama. Not to be outdone, Mitt Romney’s campaign has also created a Facebook page called “Pet Lovers for Romney.”
Unfortunately for Romney, the comments on this page are largely about putting his dog, Seamus, in carrier on top of his car for a 12-hour trip. This campaign is really going to the dogs…
Wallman’s original post is here.