Successful political campaigns require an almost magical mix of demographics, complex social factors, and mind-boggling marketing tactics. Rarely do they succeed or fail on a dog’s shoulders. But when future generations study Georgia’s recent race for the U.S. Senate – which saw the state go from red to blue (or at least purple) – they may want to consider the impact of a beagle named Alvin changing the fortunes of the Democratic Party this long-standing republican stronghold.
Democratic candidate Reverend Raphael Warnock began his race to represent Georgia in the US Senate with a number of factors to overcome, including as an African American man competing against a reigning white woman. Voting in the suburbs was key to victory, and Kelly Loeffler, the incumbent Republican, certainly looked like someone these voters would be comfortable with. She also aggressively played up the differences between herself and Warnock, employing a number of smear tactics: portraying Warnock as a radically liberal person, running ads that had his skin color artificially darkened, and continuing Trump’s terrifying threat that “the suburbs be would be victims of racist violence ”if the Democrats won.
While Loeffler relied on predictable Trumpian dog whistles to demonize her opponent, Warnock and his team countered with their own dog tropes that aimed at people’s love for dogs and the puppies’ unique abilities to humanize a candidate. A touch of humor that seemed to resonate with an audience tired of bitter telling and negativity also helped.
Although Alvin is not Warnock’s dog, the Reverend has had multiple dogs (Comet, Cupid, and Brenal, all mutt) throughout his life, so he was a puppy-themed game game and was perfectly comfortable with Alvin’s company. There has also been some discussion about choosing a Beagle, but the rationale seems pretty transparent. Not only is the breed known for being friendly and warm-hearted – Charles Schulz ‘Snoopy confirms this – Beagles are sized to be easy to keep.
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Politicians seem to be the most sincere in their dealings with dogs and give voters a calming dose of “normal human”. So having a dog in a political campaign is not a novel idea, although it is preferred by Democrats rather than Republicans. In the lead up to the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, dogs appeared in many of the hopefuls’ many messaging efforts and Twitter feeds. Who can forget Elizabeth Warren’s Bailey, Pete Buttigieg’s Truman and Buddy, John Hickenlooper’s Skye, Sherrod Brown’s Walter and Franklin, and Kirsten Gillibrand’s Maple? In the White House, both Dems and Republicans rolled out a dog bed or two. From Ronald Reagan’s Rex and George HW Bush’s Millie to Barack Obama’s Bo and Sunny to Joe Biden’s Champ and Major, the dog’s paw skitter is a familiar sound in the first family residence.
Rev. Warnock’s first ad debuted on November 5 as he prepared to run against Sen. Loeffler in the January runoff election. In the ad, a foreboding voice-over intones that “Raphael Warnock eats pizza with a knife and fork …” and continues the grim revelations that he “stepped on a crack in the sidewalk and even hates puppies …”. With the satirical nature of Warnock himself warns, “Get ready, Georgia, the negative ads are coming. Kelly Loeffler doesn’t want to talk about why she’s getting rid of health care in the middle of a pandemic, so she will try to scare you with lies about me … and by the way, I LOVE puppies! “The ad ends with a smiling Warnock cuddling Alvin the Beagle. The Georgians responded to the warmth, the humor, the honesty … and Alvin.
Warnock’s second ad went all-in on the dog theme and featured a down vest Warnock walking Alvin on a leash against a picket fence in a neat suburban neighborhood. The camera stays with Alvin, who quickly trots along when Warnock points out Loeffler’s electoral cuts against him. Warnock throws a waste bag in the trash, a not-so-subtle reference to Loeffler’s lies. The ad ends with Warnock cradling Alvin in his arms while the beagle licks the candidate’s face.
The public response was largely positive.
As Georgia voters fell in love with the cuddly beagle, social scientists and political experts examined the underlying symbolism and cultural traits of the ad campaign, including segregation in dog ownership.
“The entire ad screams, ‘I’m a black candidate who shouldn’t be afraid of whites,” said Hakeem Jefferson, a Stanford political science professor who studies Race, Stigma and Politics in America. “The puppy ad got people talking “said Brian C. Robinson, a Georgia-based Republican strategist.” It made him harder to caricature because they humanized him. “
Which was the point. While much has been done about Alvin the Beagle’s cuteness, the inclusion of a dog in Warnock’s media campaign was also a calculated effort to show the contestant as more approachable, less threatening, and “one of us.” It was used to neutralize the implicit and explicit racist stereotypes that haunted that choice (pardon the phrase).
The ads were posted just before Thanksgiving. In an excellent match of message and demographics, they ran during the National Dog Show’s annual Kennel Club in Philadelphia as well as other programs.
The gambling paid off and the ads went viral. Online, the Beagle spot rose to 3 million views within a few hours and to 5 million in one day. “Dogs for Warnock” signs appeared on lawns and on social media. Supporters raised their own dogs at rallies and the campaign sold Puppies 4 Warnock merchandise.
To gauge the impact of the ads, the next round of polls included an open-ended question to see what voters thought of Rev. Warnock. Mike Bocian, the pollster, couldn’t believe the results. “I saw ‘Puppy’ and I saw ‘Dog’ and I saw ‘Poop’,” he said. “That’s crazy.”
With Alvin’s help, Raphael Warnock had broken through. The poll found the race was neck to neck too close to be called until the end. But those who scored found optimism in the fact that Rev. Warnock was two points ahead of his engaging dog walking commercial.
Warnock defeated Loeffler by less than 100,000 votes with a record participation of 4.5 million. The other new Democratic Senator from Georgia, Jon Ossoff, won by an even smaller margin. While not a single factor is responsible for such close victories, it may not be a coincidence that the Warnock candidate won by exactly two percentage points.