- It may be a campaign first: pets in political outfits advertising for a campaign
- More than 16,000 people have "liked" the Pets for Obama Facebook page
- The Obamas' dog, Bo, appears solo in a campaign ad for the president
- The RNC thinks the Pets for Obama page is a distraction
Tina Gangidine is so passionate about President Barack Obama, even her pet lovebird campaigned for him.
"I left the campaign sign by her cage, and whenever she would get out she would always hop right over to it and sit for long stretches staring at it," said the retired middle school teacher from Ohio.
"I guess she was a political bird. Well, so is the rest of her family, so she came by it honestly."
Gangidine campaigns in her swing state for the president pretty much nonstop, but she paused long enough to post a photo of the starry-eyed creature -- known as The Bird, H.R.H. (Her Royal Highness) -- on the Pet Lovers for Obama Facebook page.
It got more "likes" and thoughtful comments than almost anything else she's ever posted, and that includes the Twitter feed and Facebook pages she runs for her neighborhood's Obama campaign. Suddenly, she realized there was a lesson.
"When we are phone banking, we have to work really hard to get someone to pick up and talk with us," Gangidine said. "People love their pets so they pay attention to this kind of thing, and it's a really positive message for them to see from us."
Presidential pets have certainly played a role in politicking before. President Franklin D. Roosevelt often appeared in photos with Fala, his Scottish terrier. President George W. Bush sent holiday videos of his dog Barney every Christmas. President Bill Clinton's cat, Socks, even had its own book.
But this virtual campaign by Obama for America to encourage people to "like" its Facebook page, post photos of their pets and recruit friends is taking the presidential love of pets to a whole new level. It seems to be working.
More than 16,500 people have "liked" the page so far. Hundreds of others have posted photos of their furry friends. A dog named Teddy Roosevelt abandoned his namesake's political party to wear a navy Obama shirt. Baby, a gray cat, looks smart in a "Cats for Obama" collar. There's even an unnamed chicken sporting an Obama bandana.
Such pet-specific merchandise is available on an accompanying Obama campaign site. There's an "I Meow for Michelle" cat collar, a "2012 Barack's best friend" dog collar with a matching leash, a Bo "I bark for Barack" car magnet, and many others. All purchases count as campaign donations.
Chicagoan Lisa Capretto posted a photo of her pit-bull mix Rocco sporting an Obama T-shirt and sitting patiently with human-sized Obama sunglasses perched on his wet nose.
"My brother works with the campaign, and he brought over a bunch of gear," Capretto said. "Rocco is clearly such a tolerant and sweet dog."
While Capretto and her husband have donated money to Obama's re-election effort, the photo she submitted is the only real campaigning she plans to do.
"We are still enthusiastic about the president, but I'll leave the grass-roots campaigning to my brother," she said. "I do like this particular effort, though, and I thought the least I could do was lend my support by taking this ridiculous picture."
There is no parallel pet-themed campaign for Republican candidate Mitt Romney. There is a Vets for Romney Facebook page, but that's for the military -- not the animal -- kind of vet. A Dogs Against Romney Facebook page has racked up more than 55,000 "likes," but it was created as a tongue-in-cheek response to the story of how Romney strapped a crate containing his Irish setter, Seamus, to the roof of his car during a road trip to Canada. The page is not sanctioned by any campaign.
"We've seen this for months. The Obama campaign would rather talk about anything under the sun, including dogs, if it means they can distract from the most important issue on the minds of every American -- jobs and the economy," Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said.
"Every minute team Obama talks about something other than jobs and the economy, they are attempting to hide Obama's record from voters."
The Obama campaign won't comment on its digital strategy. But its attempt to engage with the pet set may now be aimed at many more voters.
As a part of its general online ad blitz, Obama for America created an ad in which the candidate himself never appears. Instead, under the title "Join Pet Lovers for Obama," is a lone photo of the president's dog, Bo. None of the popular online animal sites like Petfinders.com, Dogster.com, or icanhascheezburger.com say they've received the ad, but the ad has run on several general news sites, which reach a broader audience.
"They are clearly wide-casting with this ad and are looking for places where they can persuade swing voters and independents and women with this," said Drew Westen, an Emory University psychology professor and author of "The Political Brain," a book about the role of emotion in deciding elections.
"It's a nice, neutral message. Who doesn't like a dog?"
Kate Kaye, senior editor for ClickZ, a trade publication that covers the digital advertising industry, thinks the dog ads are a strategic attempt to cultivate a certain type of voter.
"Maybe Obama's staff thinks people who are sentimental about their animals are more likely to be interested in more liberal issues," Kaye said. "As the campaign builds up its data on who views these ads, they can go back later and specifically target that reader with whatever their next appropriate issue ad is."
Denise Small, a volunteer with the Humane Society of Western Montana, submitted a photo of her 16-year-old Persian cat Mysty wearing an Obama bandana to Pet Lovers for Obama. She thinks the pet campaign lends the president credibility.
"It helps him seem so genuine," she said. "For me, as someone who is passionate about animals, how genuine someone is as a human is most important to me in a politician. I think he reflects my values, and it is clear he is a passionate advocate for human rights and for low-income people. I don't see that from the other side."
The Facebook page also has kept Small engaged with the Obama campaign. She visits it regularly to click through and comment on other people's pictures. Gangidine, who put her lovebird's photo on the page, also continues to visit the site. She thinks it resonates with voters who appreciate seeing something positive when so much else about the campaign -- especially advertising -- is negative.
"Something like this reaches everyday people," she said, "and we're going to need every one of them to get out there."
The campaign volunteer says she would happily post other photos of her Obama-curious bird if it would help her candidate, but unfortunately, The Bird H.R.H died recently.
"She went to sleep when I was at a Democratic organizing meeting, of all things," Gangidine said. Not all is lost though. Gangidine is considering putting a tiny Obama scarf on her son's rescue hamster, Stinky.
"Although I'd have to take the picture superfast," she said. "He is a hamster, after all. It's likely he'd eat it. And that message might not seem as supportive."