While on the campaign trail, a candidate’s best friend may indeed be his canine companion.
During her sabbatical, Annenberg School for Communication professor Diana Mutz, a self-proclaimed “dog person,” decided to examine the influence of dog ownership on voter preferences in the 2008 presidential election.
Her research findings indicated that, statistically controlling for confounding variables, such as party affiliation and perceptions of the economy, as well as for demographic differences, dog ownership exerted a “small but significant” effect on voters’ opinions of each candidate.
Mutz’s research was based on data from the National Annenberg Election Study, which tracked a large sample of randomly selected respondents during the 2008 presidential campaign.
The independent variable central to the study was pet ownership in relation to measures of support for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama throughout the general election campaign period.
She found that dog owners were on the whole more likely to support Republican nominee John McCain, whose dog ownership had previously been publicized, over Obama, who drew media attention to his “doglessness” by publicly promising his daughters a dog after the election.
“We look at a whole range of factors that affect voting behavior — all I did was add to one of those models indicators of people’s pet ownership,” she said.
After evaluating the data, Mutz was “surprised” to find that a relationship between dog ownership and candidate support still existed after taking into account all possible factors influencing voter preferences, such as education, age, location and religious beliefs.
“The implication of the analysis is that Obama could have had more support if he’d had a dog and trotted it out in front of the television cameras,” she said.
While there exists no rational correlation between dog ownership and presidential potential, dog-owning voters may have identified more strongly with McCain.
“People may see similarities between themselves and other people who own the pets they do,” she said.
According to Communication professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, voters are often unaware of the factors that influence their decisions.
She cited a study in which, after being shown photographs of candidates with flags in the background and ones without, participants indicated a greater preference for the candidates depicted with flags.
In addition, she said, past research has indicated that voters are more likely to support taller candidates over shorter ones.
“People draw inferences from all sorts of things, like whether the candidate has children or whether he has a happy spouse, [and] whether the spouse fits some stereotypical role,” Jamieson said.