The unlikely pitchman is Bo, the White House family pet, who may well be the first “first dog” to emerge as a central player in a presidential reelection campaign.
Political pets have long attracted inordinate attention, from then-Sen. Richard M. Nixon’s dog, Checkers — the focus of an early 1950s scandal that slowed his political ascent — to Bill Clinton’s adopted stray cat, Socks. In 2004, George W. Bush’s campaign put together a tongue-in-cheek video for the Republican National Convention seeking advice from Barney, Bush’s Scottish terrier, on how to attract the “canine vote.”
But Obama appears to be breaking ground by featuring his Portuguese water dog so prominently in official campaign advertisements and fundraising efforts, part of a broader focus on the president’s family.
The strategy is also an attempt to capitalize on the persistent controversy over canines that has dogged the 2012 race. Obama’s presumed GOP rival, Mitt Romney, has come under fire from Democrats and animal-rights activists for transporting his now-deceased Irish setter, Seamus, in a crate tied atop the family station wagon for a 12-hour trip to Canada in the 1980s. Republicans, in turn, have highlighted Obama’s recollection in his 2004 autobiography that he had eaten dog meat as a child in Indonesia.
“My stepfather always told me, ‘It’s a boy-eat-dog world out there,’ ” Obama said to laughter at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner Saturday.
Mark McKinnon, a top Bush campaign adviser, joked that the 2012 race “has gone to the dogs.” But, he added, a candidate’s relationship with animals can serve as an important marker for many voters.
“People look at a whole constellation of attributes when they vote for president,” McKinnon said. “Pet lover may not be high on the list, but it’s on the list.”
For the Obama campaign, pet lovers are just one niche among many, with specific appeals aimed at women, African Americans, students, military families and countless others. The result is a campaign that might be the most micro-targeted in history, attempting to use the power of the Web and social media to reach ever-thinner slices of the electorate.
Nearly half of the Obama campaign’s March budget — $6.7 million — went toward Internet ads, many of them targeting specific demographic or interest groups. Romney has been less aggressive in micro-targeting efforts and has spent only a tenth as much on online advertising.
Pro-Obama Internet ads featuring Bo, which have run steadily in recent months, urge voters to“Bark for Barack” by donating to the campaign. Official “Pet Lovers for Obama” pages on Facebook, Pinterest and other social media sites feature pictures of the president and his dog and invite supporters to share their own pet photos.