Successful political campaigns require an almost magical mix of attention to demographics, complex social factors and mind-bending marketing tactics. Rarely do they succeed or fail on the shoulders of a dog. But when future generations study the recent Georgia race for the U.S. Senate—in which the state flipped from red to blue (or at least, purple)—they may want to consider the impact of a Beagle named Alvin in changing the Democratic Party’s fortunes in this long-time Republican stronghold.
Democratic candidate Reverend Raphael Warnock began his race to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate with a number of factors to overcome, first among them, being an African American male running against a white female incumbent. The suburban vote was key to winning, and Kelly Loeffler, the Republican incumbent, certainly looked like someone with whom these voters would be comfortable. She also aggressively played up the distinctions between herself and Warnock, deploying a number of smear tactics: portraying Warnock as a radical liberal, running ads in which his skin color had been artificially darkened and continuing Trump’s fear-mongering threat that “the suburbs would be victimized by racial violence” if Democrats won.
While Loeffler relied on predictable Trumpian dog whistles to demonize her opponent, Warnock and his team countered with some canine tropes of their own, messaging that targeted peoples’ love of dogs and the unique ability pups have to humanize a candidate. A touch of humor that seemed to resonate with a public weary of bitter narratives and negativity also helped.
Though Alvin is not Warnock’s dog, the reverend has had several dogs throughout his life (Comet, Cupid and Brenal, all mutts), so he was game for a puppy-themed spot and completely comfortable in Alvin’s company. There’s also been some discussion about the choice of a Beagle, but the rationale seems pretty transparent. Not only is the breed known for being friendly and warm—Charles Schulz’s Snoopy attests to that—Beagles are sized for easy holding.
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Politicians seem to be at their most genuine when interacting with dogs, giving voters a comforting dose of “regular person” vibe. So a dog in a political campaign isn’t a novel idea, although it does seem to be one more favored by Democrats than Republicans. During the run-up to the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, dogs made appearances in many of the hopefuls’ 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? Once in the White House, both Dems and Republicans have rolled out a dog bed or two. From Ronald Reagan’s Rex and George H.W. Bush’s Millie to Barack Obama’s Bo and Sunny and, now, Joe Biden’s Champ and Major, the skitter of dog paws is a familiar sound in the first family’s residence.
Rev. Warnock’s first ad debuted on November 5, as he prepared to face Sen. Loeffler in the January runoff election. In the ad, a foreboding voiceover intones that “Raphael Warnock eats pizza with a fork and knife …,” continuing with the somber revelations that he “once stepped on a crack in the sidewalk, and even hates puppies …” With the satirical nature of the ad now clear, Warnock himself warns, “Get ready Georgia, the negative ads are coming. Kelly Loeffler doesn’t want to talk about why she’s for getting rid of health care in the middle of a pandemic so she’s going to try and scare you with lies about me … and by the way, I LOVE puppies!” The ad ends with a smiling Warnock cuddling Alvin the Beagle. Georgians responded to the warmth, the humor, the honesty … and Alvin.
Warnock’s second ad went all-in on the dog theme, showing a down-vest-wearing Warnock walking Alvin on-leash against the backdrop of a picket fence in a tidy suburban neighborhood. The camera lingers on Alvin trotting along briskly as Warnock points out Loeffler’s campaign smears against him. Warnock deposits a poop bag in the trash, a not-so-subtle reference to Loeffler’s falsehoods. The ad closes with Warnock cradling Alvin in his arms while the Beagle licks the candidate’s face.
Public response was overwhelmingly positive.
While Georgia voters were becoming enamored with the cuddly Beagle, social scientists and political experts were examining the ad campaign’s underlying symbolism and cultural markers, including the racial divide in dog ownership.
“The entire ad screams ‘I am a Black candidate whom white people ought not be afraid of,’” said Hakeem Jefferson, a professor of political science at Stanford 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 it harder to caricature him because they humanized him.”
Which was the point. While much has been made of Alvin the Beagle’s cuteness, including a dog in Warnock’s media campaign was also a calculated effort to show the candidate as more approachable, less threatening and “one of us.” It was employed to neutralize the racial stereotypes, both implicit and explicit, that (forgive the expression) dogged this election.
The ads debuted right before Thanksgiving; in an excellent match-up of message and demographic, they ran during the annual Kennel Club of Philadelphia’s National Dog Show, as well as other programs.
The gamble paid off, and the ads went viral. Online, the Beagle spot surged to 3 million views within hours, and 5 million in a day. “Dogs for Warnock” signs appeared on lawns and social media. Supporters hoisted their own dogs at rallies, and the campaign sold Puppies 4 Warnock merchandise.
To gauge the effect of the ads, the next round of polling included an open-ended question to gauge what voters thought about Rev. Warnock. Mike Bocian, the pollster, could hardly believe the results. “I saw ‘puppy’ and I saw ‘dog’ and I saw ‘poop,’” he said. “This is crazy.”
With the help of Alvin, Raphael Warnock had broken through. Polling showed the race neck and neck, too close to call until the very end. But those keeping score found optimism in the fact that Rev. Warnock had taken a two-point lead after his appealing dog-walking commercial.
Warnock went on to defeat Loeffler by fewer than 100,000 votes out of a record turnout of 4.5 million. The other new Democratic senator from Georgia, Jon Ossoff, won by an even slimmer margin. While no single factor is responsible for victories this narrow, perhaps it was no coincidence that candidate Warnock won by exactly two percentage points.