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Raphael Warnock’s Dog Ads Cut Against White Voters’ Stereotypes Of Black People

If he wins next month, Raphael Warnock may have his pet beagle to thank.

So far, Warnock, the Democratic candidate in one of Georgia’s two Senate runoff elections, has aired two ads featuring his dog. In the first, he uses his cuddly canine to preempt negative GOP attacks against him — attacks that have tried to paint him as an ideological extremist and tie him to far-left Black activists.

In the second ad, the pooch plays an even more prominent role, with Warnock walking his dog through a suburban neighborhood, poop bag in hand, while denouncing Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s “smear ads” against him.

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“I think Georgians will see her ads for what they are — don’t you?” he asks as he throws the poop bag into the garbage. The beagle barks in agreement and licks his owner’s face.

These ads have been praised as cute, humorous and clever. And the two spots have gone viral, generating almost nine million views while Warnock’s dogoriented tweets accumulated over half a million likes on Twitter in November. The campaign has even profited off the pooch by selling “Puppies for Warnock” merchandise.

But some close observers of race and politics have noted that there is much more here than just an adorable electoral campaign. These ads, they argue, are carefully crafted attempts to neutralize racial stereotypes that work against Warnock in his bid to become Georgia’s first African American senator.

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Hakeem Jefferson, a Stanford professor and FiveThirtyEight contributor, tweeted, “This ad is doing a lot. It’s obv[iously] cute, but it is also meant to deracialize Warnock with this cute ‘white people friendly’ doggy.” Fordham University political scientist and MSNBC contributor Christina Greer similarly tweeted, “This ad will be taught in Race Politics classes for years to come…it is doing A LOT of silent heavy lifting.” And The New York Times’s Jamelle Bouie concurred, tweeting in response to Greer’s comments, “Yep. The setting, Warnock’s outfit, even the dog breed all are sending a specific message.”

But why is Warnock’s pet beagle viewed as a “white people doggy”? And could his choice of pet have an effect on his electoral strategy?

Well, for starters, there’s a large racial divide in dog ownership. A 2006 Pew Research poll found that 45 percent of white Americans owned a dog compared to only 20 percent of African Americans. And the way pet ownership is portrayed in popular culture further exacerbates that divide in the minds of the public. In their classic study of media and race in the 1990s, “Black Image in the White Mind,” Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki found no prime-time commercials containing African American pet owners. “According to the world of TV advertising,” Entman and Rojecki surmised, “Whites are the ones who occupy the realm of ideal humanity, of human warmth and connection, as symbolized occasionally by their love for their pets.” That is one reason Warnock’s ads are so effective: They directly push back against this stereotype, showing an affectionate Black dog owner who explicitly says he loves puppies.

[Related: Warnock And Ossoff Are Testing A New Strategy For Democrats In The South]

Yet, as the tweets above suggest, the breed of Warnock’s dog is also doing a lot of work to counteract negative racial stereotypes of dog ownership. Take what my University of California Irvine colleague Mary McThomas and I’ve found in our research on dog ownership: When we asked people which dog breeds they thought white and Black people were more likely to own, the majority guessed that Black people owned rottweilers and pit bulls while white people owned golden retrievers, collies, Labradors and Dalmatians.

It’s hardly a coincidence, either, that the two dog breeds stereotyped as Black-owned are also the two breeds that evoke the most fear from the public. Over 40 percent of respondents in a 2018 Lucid survey we conducted said that “scary” described pit bulls and rottweilers “extremely” or “very well” (46 and 41 percent, respectively). But only about 10 percent said the same thing about golden retrievers, collies, Dalmatians and Labradors. (These four breeds were all rated at least 15 percentage points more favorably than rottweilers and pit bulls in our 2020 surveys as well.)

Unfortunately, we did not specifically ask about beagles in our surveys, but the commentary on Warnock’s ads argues that beagles fit squarely among the adored and approachable dog breeds that Americans generally associate with white people. That’s why the breed of Warnock’s dog is so important in how he’s pitching himself to voters. As Jefferson also noted on Twitter, Warnock’s beagle can be thought of as trying to communicate a specific “white-friendly” message to voters, something like, “How can I be the scary (Black) guy she’s depicting” with a dog like that?

[Split-Ticket Voters Are A Small Group, But They Could Decide The Georgia Runoffs]

Of course, it’s impossible to say whether this was the intent behind Warnock’s dog ads. But political science research has shown that African American candidates often try to deploy deracialization strategies like this to protect themselves from widespread stereotypes about Black political leadership — stereotypes that tend to paint African American politicians as radical extremists who govern exclusively for the benefit of Black interests at the expense of white people.

This is arguably all the more important in a campaign where Republicans have explicitly tried to tie Warnock to Black radicalism — especially considering this is a Southern state where white voters are still overwhelmingly Republican. (Stacey Abrams won only a quarter of the white vote in her losing 2018 bid to become Georgia’s first African American governor.) It’s true that Georgia has since emerged as a swing state, voting for a Democrat for president for the first time since 1992, but it’s unclear how much of that had to do with Trump and how much it may have been a sign of a more permanent shift in Georgia’s politics. Warnock’s dog ads may well be thought of as a dog whistle to voters who have lingering concerns about Black political leadership.

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Michael Tesler is a professor of political science at University of California, Irvine, author of “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era” and co-author of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”