Compassionate Campaigners

How animal voters are shaping the 2008 presidential election

John McCain has 22 pets, including a ferret, two turtles, and three parakeets. Mike Huckabee has just two: a black Labrador named Jet and a Shih Tzu with the oddly non-conformist name of Sonic. As First Lady, Hillary Clinton wrote a book titled, “Dear Socks, Dear Buddy” featuring letters that children had written to the First Pets, but now she just has Seamus the Labrador. Barack Obama has no pets, but true to the politics of hope, he has promised his two daughters he will get a dog when the election finishes.

Only four to 10 percent of Americans are vegetarian, but two thirds have a pet, and polls tell us that most of these people consider their pets to be family members, and many even say they’d die for their pets. And while fewer than 13 million Americans now hunt, over 70 million observe, feed, or photograph wildlife on a regular basis. Of course, not all pet and wildlife lovers extend their concern with animals beyond their own Fido or favorite bird species, but many do, and they form a powerful new constituency against animal abuse.

This group of potential “animal voters” is news-savvy, socially integrated, and politically active. These are the suburban soccer moms who buy free range meat at Whole Foods, cosmetics not tested on animals from the Body Shop, and who quietly shun Ringling Bros’ animal circus when it comes to town. They’re also the people who sent over 300,000 e-mails to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell last July successfully urging him to drop convicted dog fighter Michael Vick from the league. They’re politically active, and willing to use their votes to protect the defenseless.

This month, after the Humane Society of the United States exposed animal cruelty at a California slaughterhouse, animal voters made thousands of phone calls, sparking the closure of the plant and the biggest meat recall in U.S. history. And, in an unprecedented election event, they spurred the presidential candidates to issue statements condemning animal abuse, with Obama last week explicitly commending the Humane Society’s investigation.

Animal voters are not card carrying PETA members, and they’ve never picketed a KFC in their lives. But they care about animals, and they see a candidate’s attitude to animals as a broader reflection of his compassion and character. That’s why senators ranging from conservative Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania to liberal Robert Byrd in West Virginia have sought the Humane Society Legislative Fund’s (HSLF) endorsement in their re-election bids. Animal protection is what marketers call a “signal issue”—something that shows voters that a candidate feels the way they do, quite apart from any specific policies.

In the 2008 election, animal voters have already spoken up. They held Mitt Romney to account when Time revealed that in 1983 he had strapped his dog to the roof of his car in a twelve-hour drive from Boston to Ontario (his first excuse that “my dog likes fresh air,” did not go down well with animal voters). And they questioned Mike Huckabee’s judgment when Newsweek alleged that, as Governor of Arkansas, he had intervened to stop an animal cruelty investigation into his son’s hanging and stoning to death of a stray dog.

The beneficiaries of the animal vote have been Senators McCain, Clinton, and Obama. McCain has chalked up a strong track record on animal issues, co-sponsoring legislation to stop horse slaughter, opposing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and voting to eliminate a two million dollar subsidy for the mink industry. Obama, meanwhile, has championed bans on horse slaughter and dog fighting, and surprised a Las Vegas town hall crowd in mid-January by telling them, “I think how we treat our animals reflects how we treat each other, and it’s very important that we have a president who is mindful of the cruelty that is perpetrated on animals.” And Clinton has consistently opposed the slaughter of sick ‘downer’ cattle, amongst other pro-animal stances, earning her a perfect score of 100 percent on last year’s HSLF Humane Scorecard.

In 1952, Senator Richard Nixon—besieged by corruption allegations—famously shifted attention with a televised reference to Checkers, a dog he had been given as a political gift. Nixon left the television studio downcast, but in the coming days, 250,000 Americans sent letters to the Republican National Committee endorsing Nixon, and defending Checkers the dog.

No President since Chester A. Arthur has entered the White House without a pet. Warren Harding campaigned with his Airedale Terrier, “Laddie Boy,” and gave the mutt his own chair at cabinet meetings. The Scottish Terrier “Fala” belonging to Franklin D. Roosevelt ’04 had his own Secret Service moniker and became an election issue in 1944 when FDR allegedly sent a destroyer to the Sandwich Islands to retrieve the dog after leaving it behind there. Calvin Coolidge once remarked that “any man who does not like dogs and want them to be about does not deserve to be in the White House.”

Maybe Obama should get his daughters that dog sooner.

Lewis E. Bollard ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.