How Alvin the Beagle helped institute a Democratic Senate
The dog was very busy.
He co-starred in a political ad that had to show the candidate’s good-natured warmth. But the ad also had to fend off an onslaught of racially motivated attacks without involving them directly, and convey to Georgia white voters that the black pastor who ran the Ebenezer Baptist Church could represent them too.
Of course, Alvin the Beagle couldn’t have known about this when he was out walking with Rev. Raphael Warnock last fall when a film crew was recording their time together in a neighborhood outside of Atlanta.
Alvin dressed Mr. Warnock in a bullet vest for an idealized suburban stroll – bright sunshine, picket fences, an American flag – and appeared in several of Mr. Warnock’s commercials fighting his Republican opponent in the recent Georgia Senate runoff.
Perhaps at its most famous spot, Mr. Warnock, a Democrat, throws a plastic bag of Alvin’s feces in the trash and compares it to his rival’s increasingly caustic ads. The Beagle barks in agreement, and when Mr. Warnock declares that “we” – he and Alvin – agree to the news, the dog licks its goatee healthy.
“The whole ad screams that I’m a black candidate that whites shouldn’t be afraid of,” said Hakeem Jefferson, a Stanford political science professor who studies race, stigma and politics in America.
On Wednesday, Mr Warnock became the first ever black Senator from Georgia after the Democrats swept both of the state’s Senate seats in the runoff elections. The double victories brought Democrats control of the Chamber and a huge boost for President Biden and his chances of getting his agenda through.
While there isn’t a single factor responsible for such narrow victories – Mr Warnock won by less than 100,000 votes out of about 4.5 million and the other new Democratic Senator, Jon Ossoff, won even less – there is bipartisan consensus on that the Beagle played a paramount role in breaking the mess in two competitions that broke every Senate spending record.
“The puppy commercials got people talking,” said Brian C. Robinson, a Georgia Republican strategist. “It was more difficult to caricature him because they humanized him.”
At the end of the campaign, Warnock employees saw dog references appear in their internal surveys, supporters raised their own puppies in solidarity at election rallies, and self-made Beagle-themed signs posted in front yards. They even started selling Puppies 4 Warnock merchandise.
All of this would probably surprise Alvin. After all, he wasn’t even Mr. Warnock’s dog.
A pre-emptive strike against racial prejudice
Ahead of the November 3 election, two Republicans, Senator Kelly Loeffler and MP Doug Collins, bloodied each other in a race to the right as they pledged allegiance to President Trump.
Mr. Warnock found himself on a glide path to the runoff and had the rare opportunity to run non-stop advertisements about himself for months.
The 51-year-old pastor had shown himself to be a natural on camera, and his campaign would film him speaking directly to the audience in most of their ads. But the Warnock team also knew that the pastor’s two decades of sometimes fiery language in the pulpit would lead to potentially devastating attacks.
Racial politics was inevitable. In addition to being a black candidate, Mr. Warnock was a pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And political scientists and strategists emphasized that he faced a unique challenge with Mrs. Loeffler: running against a white woman in the south.
“He knew he would be perceived as a highly racial candidate,” said Andra Gillespie, professor of political science at Emory University in Georgia and author of several books on race and politics. A key question for his campaign was: “Can you be racially transcendent and pastor what is arguably the most prominent Black Church in America?”
The Beagle spots were the brainchild of Adam Magnus, the leading advertiser for the Warnock campaign, who wanted to find a way – through humor – to vaccinate Mr. Warnock against explicit and implicit attacks. First he had to call the pastor. “I want to make sure you like dogs,” he recalled.
Mr. Warnock said he did – he had owned dogs before (Comet, Cupid, and Brenal – all mutt), if not currently – and was a game for a puppy-themed place. Next, Mr Magnus had to throw a celebrity doggy that he eventually found from a Georgia supporter the campaign refused to name.
There has been some discussion that the beagle – the type of breed “we psychologically associate with whites,” as Dr. Jefferson put it – another subtle but deliberate attempt was to break down racial stereotypes. Mr Magnus said the reality was more mundane: “The dog had to be very cute, relatable, and he had to be able to hold the dog.”
A shot of Alvin in Mr. Warnock’s arms would be the punchline.
“Get ready, Georgia, negative attacks are coming,” the contestant said, predicting slander on everything from eating pizza with a fork and knife to hating puppies.
“And by the way, I love puppies,” he added, rocking Alvin.
It was Mr. Warnock’s opening ad for the runoff and went viral online immediately.
Mr Warnock is not the first candidate to proclaim his love for puppies in a preventive act of political self-defense. In 2006, another black candidate running for the Maryland Senate, Michael Steele, a Republican, ran his own ad saying essentially the same thing.
Mr Steele, who said he was “honored by the deference” in the Warnock commercial, said his campaign was not consciously thinking about racial prejudice when producing his ad, but he saw clear efforts by Mr Warnock’s campaign to target racial prejudice to disarm. “He’s making a statement in response to the president’s statement that black people are coming into your neighborhood,” said Mr. Steele. “We already live there.”
A leave-it-to-beagle follow-up
The Warnock team knew that getting to the Senate would require a complex and fragile multiracial coalition. The party had to simultaneously mobilize black voters at a participation level close to that of a presidential election, while appealing to suburban white voters who broke with the GOP in November to make Mr Biden the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since 1992.
There’s a rough rule of thumb for Georgia Democrats to win: they need 30 percent of the electorate to be black and about 30 percent of the white vote to win.
“If you are trying to make history in the South and you are trying to elect an African American pastor in an election where you know you need white voters, then you must do all you can to make white voters more comfortable said Chip Lake, a Georgia Republican strategist who is white and worked for Mr. Collins.
Or as Jessica Byrd, a black Democratic strategist in Georgia put it, “I don’t think I’ve spent a day in the past five years not thinking about how white people are going to see black candidates.”
Dr. Gillespie and other political scientists call the effort to make black candidates more acceptable to white voters “de-racialization,” and Alvin the Beagle is a case study of his success.
“The point of demassing is not to shake up black voters,” said Dr. Gillespie. “It’s supposed to reassure white voters.” In the case of Mr Warnock, she noted, he did not avoid campaigning directly for racial justice, as some previous candidates have done. He simply and deftly added a suburban puppy.
Given the popularity of the first Beagle commercial, Mr. Magnus knew he would be returning to Alvin. But how? It had to be humorous, he decided, and it had to repeat the theme of rejecting Ms. Loeffler’s attacks, which included Mr Warnock’s misleading quote as “God damn America” (he quoted someone else) and her annihilation as a Marxist who “celebrated anti-American hatred”.
The second Alvin shoot, in the Americana oozing scene, lasted about four hours. And at one point, Mr. Magnus crouched behind a tree trying to persuade Alvin to turn on cue. And Alvin wasn’t asked to contribute anything more than his performance on camera: the bag that was thrown in the trash was full of gravel.
They posted the ad just before Thanksgiving and reserved the annual National Dog Show, among other programs.
Online, the Beagle spot rose to three million views within hours and five million in one day.
‘Same as a Pumpkin Spice Latte’
Republicans and Democrats in the state were amazed at the effectiveness of the advertising campaign. “I know a lot of people who didn’t vote for Raphael Warnock, but they didn’t like him or despise him,” said Lake.
Dr. Jefferson, the Stanford professor, said Mr. Warnock’s continued sympathy was all the more impressive when you consider that “his opponent cast all this vicious – dare I say racist – criticism aimed at his blackness and otherness to highlight the Georgia voters. ”Mr. Warnock countered with“ that cute little dog ”and a setting that evoked a“ white aesthetic ”.
As unlikely as it may seem, said Dr. Jefferson, objects – buffer vests, picket fences, beagles, suburbs – have racial associations: “It’s the same as a pumpkin spice latte.”
When the campaign commissioned its next poll following this ad, it contained an open-ended question to gauge what voters thought of Mr Warnock. Mike Bocian, the pollster, turned the answers into a word cloud and couldn’t believe the results.
“I’ve seen ‘puppy’ and seen ‘dog’ and ‘poop’,” he said. “That’s crazy.”
Alvin had broken through in the middle of the two most expensive Senate races in American history.
In internal surveys, the race remained tied to the end. But Mr. Bocian couldn’t help but notice that Mr. Warnock had taken a two-point lead after being tied in their previous poll. “You can never be sure of causality,” his voice fell silent.
On January 5th, Mr Warnock won by exactly two percentage points.
The Democrats attributed a number of factors in swearing in Mr Warnock on Wednesday. Few believe that they would have won without years of grassroots organization by black leaders. Or without the feud among the Republicans instigated by Mr Trump.
Alvin made an appearance in the last few days of the race to pull Mr. Warnock across the finish line in a beige zip-up sweater. As they strolled through another suburb, more dogs of all different breeds joined them.
“It was a symbol of how he had run his entire campaign,” said Lake. The Republican strategist, himself a proud dog lover, was stunned to learn that Alvin was not Mr. Warnock’s dog.
“You could have fooled me!” he cried. “It looked like he and this beagle were connected!”