Researchers at universities in Ohio and Indiana are seeking to answer a pivotal question in politics.
How important are dogs in getting elected?
A new study aims to determine how politicians posting about or with their dogs online can impact voters’ perceptions.
Researchers at Miami University in Ohio and Purdue University in Indiana are analyzing dogs as a new political marketing tool in the age of social media.
Dr. Jennifer Hoewe, assistant professor of communica at Purdue University, said she first had the idea for the study soon after the 2020 election.
“On my own social media, I was seeing politicians post about their dogs a lot,” Hoewe told The Enquirer.
She noticed how many people were rejoicing the news that the White House would once again have presidential canines after four dog-less years during Donald Trump’s presidency. President Joe Biden’s dogs, Champ and Major Biden, currently have a fan account on Twitter with over 100,000 followers.
But the first dogs aren’t the only four-legged influencers. Elizabeth Warren’s most recent post about golden retriever Bailey has nearly 40,000 likes on Instagram. Both Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb’s dog, Henry, and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s dog, Dolly, each have their own Twitter account.
Hoewe said their research into social media has its origins, of course, on Twitter. After tweeting about the topic, Hoewe was able to connect with other researchers, such as Dr. Diana Zulli of Purdue University and Dr. Phillip Arceneaux of Miami University. Along with Ph.D. student Amber Lusvardi, they are now studying dogs’ possible new roles in politics.
“The concept of political branding and marketing is not new, but you know how quickly technology evolves and how quickly and how often politicians need to revamp their strategy,” Zulli said.
Miami University’s Arceneaux said politicians posting about their personal lives could break a barrier between them and the voter.
“It’s about learning and getting a feel for who these politicians are as people – not as politicians,” Arceneaux said. “It’s about closing the gap between the politician and the constituent.”
How they’ll do the study
First, the researchers wanted to measure voters’ recall and reaction to seeing dogs of politicians online. They recently released a survey across several social media platforms that asked participants to name a politician that posts with their dog and how it impacts their perception.
“The survey itself is kind of giving us a baseline of ‘Do people care about this at all?’ That was really our introductory question is when politicians include dogs on their social media, are people even paying attention? Do they respond to it? Is it something that’s likable or annoying?” Hoewe said.
Zulli also pointed out that they not only wanted to know if people had seen these type of posts but on which platforms. Each platform has a typical demographic – for example, Instagram users skew more young and female – so it’s important to know what type of voters that politicians are reaching with this content.
Another research question is whether voters would associate a dog’s characteristics with the politician if they posted together frequently.
“There’s some connotations that go along with a dog,” Hoewe said. “One thing we’re interested in looking at is, if you feature a dog on your social media as a politician, does that make you seem more empathetic, more warm, like maybe more of a people person?”
One thing researchers won’t be studying: whether cats help politicians. That may come later.
The study examines whether posting a dog picture online could foster what academics call a stronger “parasocial” relationship between the politician and voters.
A parasocial relationship is a typically one-sided relationship between an audience member and an individual in mass media. The more someone knows about a person, they begin to feel more connected and close with them. However, this would ultimately be one-sided as a fan might know everything about their favorite entertainer but that entertainer doesn’t know about that fan’s existence.
“Parasocial relationships are basically when we feel like we have some connection with an individual that is largely, if not entirely, mediated. So even though I’ve seen Elizabeth Warren post about her dogs, I’ve never met her in real life and she has no idea of who I am,” Hoewe said.
So far, the study has only had one expense: a $100 gift card for a raffle that survey participants can enter to win. The researchers said they used research funding through Purdue University.
The study, which began this spring, is off to a strong start. The survey asked for at least 500 social media users to participate. Around one week after it was first posted, it had 1,500 responses.
Arceneaux said getting people to answer a survey for a research study is usually like “pulling teeth,” so he is excited to look through the results.
In the fall, the team plans to analyze the survey data and create an in-person experiment using a controlled group of participants. They would create a fictional politician and show participants photos of this politician with and without a dog. The researchers are still considering which breed of dog to include in the experiment.
Researchers intend to finish the study by summer of 2022.
Want to participate?
Take the survey yourself here.