Canine politics

Politics has gone to the dogs. And that may be a good thing.

You can tell a lot about a candidate by the way he or she feels about Fido. And in an era when Americans are inundated with information about the politicians vying for their votes, some clues can be culled from canines.

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When Sarah Palin burst onto the national stage in 2008, voters had just two months to size her up. At first, Palin’s homespun image played well. But then an animal-rights’ group, the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, began airing an ad that highlighted Palin’s support for the aerial hunting of wolves.

Graphic images of helicopter-riding predators accompanied an announcer’s description of the “vicious” killing, making note of Palin’s proposed “$150 bounty for each severed foreleg.”

According to dial-testing conducted by the independent HCD Research, the ad was the second most effective among all 2008 commercials they measured. “The ad, which focuses on Gov. Palin’s record regarding the treatment of wildlife in Alaska, seemed to strike a chord with voters,” said HCD president Glenn Kessler.

The week prior to the spot’s airing, a CNN poll found Palin’s net favorability to be plus-30. A week later, it was half that. In CNN’s final survey before Election Day, Palin rated a net negative.

To be sure, one ad didn’t torpedo Palin’s numbers by itself. But with hundreds of spots jamming the airwaves, one could argue that the commercial broke through the clutter in a way that others did not.

One year earlier, Mitt Romney was dealing with his own canine crisis. Time reported that the former Massachusetts governor had taken his family on a vacation to Canada in 1983. During the 12-hour car ride from Boston to Ontario, Romney kept a dog carrier on the roof of his station wagon, with the family’s Irish Setter locked inside. While Romney nonchalantly recalled dealing with dog excrement on the car’s roof and windows, the story questioned whether his decision had violated the Bay State’s animal-cruelty law. It would be a stretch to say the ’83 Dog Disaster cost Romney the GOP nomination, but the story didn’t sit well with many dog lovers.

Today in Illinois, there’s another GOP dog dilemma. Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Brady introduced a bill in February to re-legalize the mass killing of animals via gas chambers. The legislation, sought by an animal-control facility in Brady’s state Senate district, would permit puppy mills to use engine exhaust to conduct the extermination — a process that can take up to 40 minutes, and from which some puppies survive. Last month, a group supporting Brady’s opponent, Pat Quinn, appeared on Facebook — dubbed “Pets for Pat.” (Full disclosure: My firm counts Quinn as a client.)

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson sparked controversy when photographed lifting his pet beagle by its ears. Last year, President Barack Obama attracted international interest when he brought his new puppy home. Bo Beanie Babies flew off store shelves within hours of arrival, and resellers were spotted on eBay asking $100 for the $5 toy.

Why such widespread fascination with how candidates connect with canines? In a business where sound bites are scripted and policies get politicized, it may be that Man’s Best Friend is the last true guide of whom to trust with your vote. 

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.