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Could Scott Walker's dog allergy come back to bite him in 2016?

- April 5, 2015

The Obamas’ dogs, Bo, left, and Sunny. (Pete Souza/The White House)
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, while currently polling well as a potential Republican presidential candidate, has a problem. He can’t deal with dog dander. And if recent coverage by the New York Times is any indication, American voters might be allergic to presidential candidates who do not own dogs.
As it turns out, there is some relevant political science research on the voting behavior of dog owners. My study, conducted with Dan Lewis of Siena College, should put Walker at ease: There are few costs to running a canine-less campaign.
While political observers have often noted the prominence of presidential pets, especially during times of crisis, the 2008 presidential election provided an important test for the alleged political power of the pooch.
The petless Barack Obama squared off against John McCain, then an owner of 14 dogs (as well as six cats, two turtles, three birds, 14 fish and a ferret). Moreover, Obama had highlighted his lack of a canine companion by stating that he would fulfill his daughters’ wish for a puppy if he won the election. Political scientist Diana Mutz found that even after accounting for other relevant factors, dog owners were less likely to support Obama.
Mutz’s article was, quite rightly, a big hit, and a real howler at that. But we found that Mutz had overlooked the real reasons for Obama’s poor performance among dog owners. It wasn’t because they owned dogs. Rather, dog owners were simply more likely to be Southern, white and conservative – especially when it came to attitudes related to race. So while dog ownership is clearly related to important factors in American politics, it is those factors — and not dog ownership — that have real bite.
But if there was ever a good time for Obama to win over dog owners, it was in 2012. The Obamas’ dog Bo was prominent on the campaign trail, and when it came to pets, Mitt Romney was best known for taking his family on a road trip with Seamus, the family dog, in a carrier strapped to the roof of their station wagon. Would dog owners finally drool over the prospect of Obama’s reelection?
Data collected as part of the 2012 American National Election Studies provided an answer. I compared the gap between dog owners and non-owners in 2012 to the gap in 2008, as measured using the 2008 National Annenberg Election Survey.
jacobsmeierIn 2008, 47 percent of dog owners reported voting for Obama, compared with 58 percent of those without dogs. In 2012, the gap remained largely unchanged: 46 percent vs. 56percent. When it comes to politics, it’s hard to teach dog owners new tricks.
In this campaign, Walker is actually positioned to do well among dog owners. Walker’s dogged and successful efforts to tighten the leash on public unions in Wisconsin should play well in the dog-loving South, where support for unions is low.
Between now and November 2016, the media may continue to hound Walker about his lack of a four-legged friend, but they are barking up the wrong tree.  The idea that Walker’s dog allergy might hurt his candidacy is a bit far-fetched.
Matthew Jacobsmeier is an assistant professor of political science at West Virginia University.