What’s the connection between Sunny, the new First Puppy at the White House, and storm clouds on the horizon in Washington? Recent tongue-in-cheek political science research shows there might actually be one.
On Monday, the Obama administration announced the addition of Sunny, a second Portuguese Water Dog, to their family.
The whole issue of dogs and politics got a boost in the 2012 presidential election, when researchers and pundits debated the significance of stories about Mitt Romney’s adventure with his dog.
Romney drove 12 hours in 1983 with his dog, Seamus, on top of the family’s car in a dog carrier. When his opponent, President Barack Obama, joked about the incident, the political fur flew.
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But the flap also brought to the public’s attention a July 2012 article in the journal Political Science and Politics, where researchers said the White House has used pets since the 1960s as public relations props during times of political scandal and international tension.
The researchers said more study has to be done on the topic, but called it a groundbreaking “contribution to a research program that will bring the dog into political analysis.”
The Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff broke down the research report about the timing of public appearances made by White House pets.
“They tend to get trotted out during times of international conflict and presidential scandal (no similar effect, it’s worth noting, was found for cats). Conversely, they tend to stay out of sight during tough economic times,” she said.
In an effort to maintain full disclosure, the journal did acknowledge that one of the study’s four authors owned a Portuguese Water Dog. The study is also notable for probably the most use of puns about pets ever in a research paper.
“We present a theoretical framework and statistical evidence to explore the conditions under which presidents are most likely to trot out their four-legged friends. We show that presidents carefully gauge the best and worst times to conduct a dog and pony show. In times of war or scandal, dogs are welcome public companions, but not so in periods of economic hardship,” said the authors.
“In short, we find significant support for Harry Truman's famous adage that ‘if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,’” even if it is occasionally necessary to confine it to the doghouse,” they said.
To test their hypotheses, the researchers built a new data set of mentions of presidential pets between January 1961 and January 2011 in the Washington Post and the New York Times, and correlated them to major news events.
“When inserting public approval in the model, scandal, war, and the economic indicators remain significant variables and signed in the predicted direction,” they said.
The translation: the White House lets the dogs out in times of scandal and war, and sends them back to the doghouse when the economic going is tough.
They also pegged the public appearance of pets to about 50 events from the initial Watergate revelations in the Nixon administration to the Scooter Libby indictment in the George W. Bush administration.
For now, it’s unclear what role Sunny will play as a sidekick to Bo, the Obama’s other dog.
But the Obama administration faces plenty of public issues that might lead some dog-conspiracy theorists to claim the Sunny is just another diversion.
In its official press statement about Sunny, the White House said it expected Bo to be a good big brother to Sunny and that the puppy was expected to spend time in the Oval Office with the President.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
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