Silly Political Science For Silly Season: Obama’s 2008 Deficit With Dog Owners

At The Monkey Cage, John Sides frivolously posts a Daily Show clip in which Jon Stewart jokes about reading political science journals as a lead-in to mocking the silly seasontornado of idiocy” that was last week’s campaign 2012 kerfuffle over dogs.

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Thankfully, this gives me exactly the hook I need to post about an article I found while looking through the tables of content of recent issues of the journal PS: Political Science & Politics. As it turns out, there is some political science that explores the data on dog ownership and support in 2008 for President Obama.

With her tongue firmly in her cheek — evidenced by both the tone of the essay and its dedication to the late Lee Sigelman, who was a fan of funny and weird research subjects —   Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania explored, “The Dog that Didn’t Bark: The Role of Canines in the 2008 Election” (gated). Perhaps as an excuse to use the pet ownership questions that were included in the 2008 National Annenberg Election Survey, Mutz examined how Obama’s promise to get a dog for his daughters at the election, which highlighted for the public that he wasn’t then a dog owner, affected his electoral support.

It turns out that, even when controlling for a multitude of possible influences of voter preference, dog ownership was both substantially and statistically significant:

The three-point difference in thermometer scores that survived an unusually extensive collection of control variables may not seem like a substantial effect at first. However, taken in context, one would be hard pressed to call this effect trivial. For example, considering oneself “born again” lowers support for Obama by less than this amount, and yet few call this political contingent inconsequential.

In the analysis shown in table 2, with self-reported vote choice as the outcome of interest, the size of the effect was unmistakably substantial as well as statistically significant. According to the fully specified logit model, all else being equal, the odds decreased by 16% if the respondent was a dog owner. This large impact occurred despite the many other potential confounding influences controlled for in table 2. 

What does this mean for 2012? According to Mutz’s theoretical explanation, Obama’s promise of a future dog for his daughters hurt him because it highlighted his lack of dog ownership, which meant that dog owners would identify with him on a group basis less than they would identify with dog owner John McCain. By that theory, Obama shouldn’t face a dog deficit in 2008 since he is now a dog owner, as is Mitt Romney.

This doesn’t mean that the dog on roof versus dog in a six-year old’s food spat will mean anything. In fact, we should go on assuming that it won’t. I only bring up the Mutz piece since I happen to come across it and I found it amusing. Plus, we all know that the real important political factor regarding pets is whether owners are authoritarian or permissive.

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