Articles and Analysis


A Dog of a Poll Story

Topics: AP/Yahoo Poll , Associated Press , Barack Obama , John McCain

Yesterday, the Associated Press wrote up results from an AP/Yahoo poll showing that John McCain does better than Barack Obama among pet owners than among Americans who do not own a pet. Desmoinesdem, the blogger who seems to have a knack of getting called by internal campaign polls, called it "the worst analysis of a poll I've seen in a while." I tend to agree.

The gist is that a survey of 1,750 adults conducted over the Internet using the Knowledge Networks panel found that John McCain leads by Barack Obama by five points among pet owners (42% to 37%), while Obama leads by 14 point margin (48% to 34%) among those who do not own a pet.

They also report results showing Obama doing slightly better among cat owners than dog owners, although those differences to do not appear to be statistically significant -- something the AP story does not mention.

Go to the end of the story and you get a hint of something highly pertinent:

The population breakdown of who has pets and who doesn't also may be a factor.

For example, the poll found 47 percent of whites own dogs, compared with just 24 percent of blacks. Whites tend to favor McCain, while blacks overwhelmingly favor Obama.

Some 64 percent of dog owners are married, slightly higher than the overall population. The poll found 47 percent of married people own dogs, compared with 39 percent of non-married people. Married people tend to favor McCain.

Married people also "tend to" be over the age of 30. As Gallup tells us, Obama leads by a whopping 24 points among those age 18-29, while the race is much closer among those over 30.

And what about pet ownership by party affiliation? Or income? As Demmoinesdem points out, these potentially confounding variables may also be at work. And that strong possibility reminds us of the lesson that all pollsters are supposed to learn in their first statistics class: Correlation is not causation. Pet owners may prefer McCain for reasons that have nothing to do with whether the candidates own pets.

But that lesson is largely lost in this piece, because in the lead of the story -- and who knows how many local television news pieces run as a result -- strongly implies just the opposite (emphasis added):

If the presidential election goes to the dogs, John McCain is looking like best in show.

From George Washington's foxhound "Drunkard" to George W. Bush's terriers "Barney" and "Miss Beazley," pets are a longtime presidential tradition for which the presumed Republican nominee seems well prepared, with more than a dozen.

The apparent Democratic nominee Barack Obama, on the other hand, doesn't have a pet at home.

The pet-owning public seems to have noticed the difference.

Really? Do we have any evidence that Americans have "noticed" the difference? How many know that McCain owns "more than dozen" pets while the Obamas own none? Which candidate do Americans consider more pet friendly? This survey is silent on that score.

Even without probing deeper into the subject, a fairly simple regression analysis would tell us if pet ownership shows a significant correlation with vote preference even after controlling for things like party, race, age, income and marital status. And while we would not expect an AP story to expound on multiple regression analysis, they could certainly tell us, in so many words, that pet ownership explains greater preference for Obama even after controlling for factors like party, race, age, income and marital status.

That might be a start, but why let a straightforward analysis kill an irresistibly cute lead?

[Typos corrected]



I have conducted a similar private poll that shows McCain supporters are much more likely to have arthritis and need medication for erectile dysfunction. The American public needs to be alerted to implications of this research too.


Virginia Centrist:

Barack Obama mentioned that he ate dog in Indonesia in his book (also crickets and snakes). Maybe pet owners don't want Obama eating their dog? Ha ha ha. I kid. I say this as someone who loved his book and is voting for Obama.



I lived in Ft. Dodge, Iowa for 10 years and was also frequently called for national polls, both on consumer products and politics. It might be a combination of the early caucus and the homogenous, generally older population.



I read the article and the majority of the comments from pet owners, favoring McCain, where people in their 70's. I don't think that they prefer McCain because of their pets but their age. We all know that the younger the voter the more likely he or she is to be for Obama. So, no surprise that these "young" pet owners are McCain supporters.



Funny, as it happens I just finished up a private poll and it shows that parrot owners prefer Obama because it is easier to train their birds to speak, "Obama, yes we can" than "McCain - Leadership we can believe in" or something.



Apparently the Obama camp is taking this poll seriously. According to yesterday's Access Hollywood interview with his kids, he's promised to get them a dog after the election.




I work for a market research company that specializes in examining people's social values and how their values have a bearing on the way they consume, behave, vote, etc.

A few years ago, we ran an analysis of pet owners - looking at pet owners vs. non-pet owners, and then among pet owners, looking at dog owners, cat owners, and owners of other pets.

What we found was actually very interesting. In short (and I apologize but I can't get into more detail), dog owners have shown to have a much more traditional outlook in life than cat owners. This can be explained by dog owners' greater belief in authority and hierarchical attitudes, while cat owners had a more progressive and heterarchical attitude in the sense that they like the sense of their pet's independence. Incidentally, those who hold a more traditional outlook in their life are more likely to hold a conservative political outlook, and are therefore more likely to vote Republican.

In short, I think the AP/Yahoo poll exposed a latent variable. I agree with you, however, that AP completely misread the exposure of this latent variable, and its article ended up with a wildly incoherent conclusion.



My guinea pigs say: "Wheek! Wheek! Wheek!"

English translation: "We're for Bob Barr!"

But seriously... these sorts of polls are just fun stories- nobody in his right mind (I hope) thinks that people are for candidate X because they own pet X or pet Y.




1. The Obama family interview came out before this poll was made public.

2. I've read numerous "profiles" of the family which mentioned the same promise - that the girls would be getting a dog post-campaign, regardless of the outcome of the election. This promise *preceded* Obama's run, which ~definitely~ antedates the poll.

Again, correlation is not causation. Just because you heard the Obama's promise to their girls about the dog at around the same time as you saw the "pet poll," it doesn't make Obama a "pet panderer."

Accusations of a rightward shift on Obama family pet policy are unfounded; his position is, and has always been, Pro-Hypothetical-Future-Dog. (Full disclosure: I also support a PHFD position. "Next year" is my perpetual answer when my son asks if we can get a dog.)


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