The dog had a lot of work to do.
He was co-starring in a political ad that had to showcase the candidate’s good-natured warmth. But the ad also needed to deflect an onslaught of racialized attacks without engaging them directly, and to convey to white voters in Georgia that the Black pastor who led Ebenezer Baptist Church could represent them, too.
Of course, Alvin the beagle couldn’t have known any of that when he went for a walk with the Rev. Raphael Warnock last fall as a film crew captured their time together in a neighborhood outside Atlanta.
Tugging a puffer-vest-clad Mr. Warnock for an idealized suburban stroll — bright sunshine, picket fencing, an American flag — Alvin would appear in several of Mr. Warnock’s commercials pushing back against his Republican opponent in the recent Georgia Senate runoffs.
In perhaps the best known spot, Mr. Warnock, a Democrat, deposits a plastic baggie of Alvin’s droppings in the trash, likening it to his rival’s increasingly caustic ads. The beagle barks in agreement, and as Mr. Warnock declares that “we” — he and Alvin — approve of the message, the dog takes a healthy lick of his goatee.
The ad with Alvin is perhaps Mr. Warnock’s best known spot from the campaign.Credit…Warnock for Georgia
“The entire ad screams that I am a Black candidate whom white people ought not be afraid of,” said Hakeem Jefferson, a professor of political science at Stanford, who studies race, stigma and politics in America.
On Wednesday Mr. Warnock became the first Black senator ever from Georgia, after Democrats swept both the state’s Senate seats in the runoffs. The twin victories delivered Democratic control of the chamber and an enormous boost to President Biden and his chances to enact his agenda.
While there is no singular factor responsible for victories this narrow — Mr. Warnock won by less than 100,000 votes out of roughly 4.5 million and the other new Democratic senator, Jon Ossoff, won by even less — there is bipartisan agreement that the beagle played an outsized role in cutting through the clutter in two contests that broke every Senate spending record.
“The puppy ad got people talking,” said Brian C. Robinson, a Georgia-based Republican strategist. “It made it harder to caricature him because they humanized him.”
By the end of the campaign, Warnock aides saw dog references popping up in their internal polling, supporters hoisting up their own puppies at campaign rallies in solidarity and beagle-themed homemade signs staked into front yards. They even started selling “Puppies 4 Warnock” merchandise.
All of which would probably come as a surprise to Alvin. After all, he wasn’t even Mr. Warnock’s dog.
A pre-emptive strike against racial preconceptions
Ahead of the Nov. 3 election, two Republicans, Senator Kelly Loeffler and Representative Doug Collins, bloodied one another in a race to the right as they pledged fealty to President Trump.
Mr. Warnock was on a glide path to the runoffs and got a rare chance to air months of uninterrupted introductory ads about himself.
The 51-year-old pastor had proved a natural in front of the camera, and his campaign would film him speaking directly to the audience in a majority of their ads. But the Warnock team also knew that the pastor’s two decades of sometimes fiery rhetoric at the pulpit would be spliced into potentially devastating attacks.
Racial politics were inescapable. Mr. Warnock was not just a Black candidate but the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of Martin Luther King Jr. And political scientists and strategists emphasized that in facing Ms. Loeffler he confronted a unique challenge: Running against a white woman in the South.
“He knew he was going to be perceived as a highly racialized candidate,” said Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University in Georgia and the author of multiple books about race and politics. A key question for his campaign was, she said: “Can you be racially transcendent and the pastor of arguably the most prominent Black church in America?”
The beagle spots were the brainchild of Adam Magnus, the Warnock campaign’s lead admaker, who wanted to find a way — through humor — to inoculate Mr. Warnock against explicit attacks and implicit ones. First he had to call the pastor. “I want to make sure you like dogs,” he recalled asking.
Mr. Warnock said he did — he had owned dogs before (Comet, Cupid, and Brenal — all mutts), though not currently — and was game for a puppy-themed spot. Next, Mr. Magnus had to cast a star pooch, which he eventually found from a Georgia supporter whom the campaign declined to name.
There has been some discussion that the beagle — the kind of breed “we psychologically associate with white people,” as Dr. Jefferson put it — was another subtle yet intentional effort to explode racial stereotypes. Mr. Magnus said the reality was more mundane: “The dog needed to be very cute, somewhat relatable and he needed to be able to hold the dog.”
A shot of Alvin in Mr. Warnock’s arms would be the punchline.
“Get ready Georgia, the negative attacks are coming,” the candidate said, predicting smears about everything from eating pizza with a fork-and-knife to hating puppies.
“And by the way, I love puppies,” he added, cradling Alvin.
It was Mr. Warnock’s opening ad of the runoffs, and it immediately went viral online.
Mr. Warnock is not the first candidate to proclaim a love of puppies in a pre-emptive act of political self-defense. Back in 2006, another Black candidate running for Senate in Maryland, Michael Steele, a Republican, featured an ad of his own saying, essentially, the exact same thing.
Mr. Steele, who said he was “honored by the homage” in the Warnock spot, said his campaign was not consciously thinking of racial bias when it produced his ad but he saw clear efforts from Mr. Warnock’s campaign to disarm racial preconceptions. “He’s making a statement in response to the president saying Black people are coming to your neighborhood,” Mr. Steele said. “We already live there.”
A leave-it-to-beagle follow up
The Warnock team knew the path to the Senate would require a complex and fragile multiracial coalition. The party needed to simultaneously mobilize Black voters at turnout levels close to those of a presidential election, while also appealing to suburban white voters who broke ranks with the G.O.P. last November to make Mr. Biden the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since 1992.
There is a rough rule of thumb for Georgia Democrats to win: they need 30 percent of the electorate to be Black and to carry about 30 percent of the white vote.
“If you’re trying to make history in the South, and you’re trying to elect an African-American pastor in an election which you know you’re going to need white voters, then you need to do everything you can with your ad strategy to make white voters comfortable,” said Chip Lake, a Republican strategist in Georgia 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 one day in the last five years not thinking about how white people will view Black candidates.”
Dr. Gillespie and other political scientists call efforts to make Black candidates more acceptable to white voters “deracialization,” and Alvin the beagle is a case study in its success.
“The whole point of deracialization isn’t to rouse Black voters,” Dr. Gillespie explained. “It’s to put white voters at ease.” In Mr. Warnock’s case, she noted, he did not avoid direct engagement on racial justice, as some past candidates have. He simply and cleverly added a puppy in suburbia to the mix.
Given the first beagle ad’s popularity, Mr. Magnus knew he would return to Alvin. But how? It had to be humorous, he decided, and it had to repeat the theme of dismissing Ms. Loeffler’s attacks, which included misleadingly quoting Mr. Warnock saying “God damn America” (he was quoting someone else) and her slashing him as a Marxist who “celebrated anti-American hatred.”
The second Alvin shoot, in the scene oozing Americana, lasted about four hours. And at one point it had Mr. Magnus squatting behind a tree to coax Alvin to turn on cue. And Alvin wasn’t asked to contribute more than his on-camera performance: The baggie that got tossed into the trash was full of planting gravel. .
They put the ad out right before Thanksgiving, reserving, among other programs, the annual National Dog Show.
Online, the beagle spot surged to three million views within hours, and five million in a day.
‘The same thing as a pumpkin spice latte’
Republicans and Democrats in the state marveled at the ad campaign’s effectiveness. “I know a lot of people who did not vote for Raphael Warnock but they didn’t dislike him or despise him,” Mr. Lake said.
Dr. Jefferson, the Stanford professor, said Mr. Warnock’s sustained likability was all the more impressive considering that “his opponent is tossing all this vitriolic — dare I say racist — criticism that aimed to highlight his Blackness and his otherness to Georgia voters.” Mr. Warnock countered with “this cute little dog” and scenery that evoked a “white aesthetic.”
However unlikely it seems, Dr. Jefferson said, objects — puffer vests, picket fences, beagles, suburbia — have racial associations: “It’s the same thing as a pumpkin spice latte.”
When the campaign commissioned its next poll after that ad, it included an open-ended question to gauge what voters thought about Mr. Warnock. Mike Bocian, the pollster, made a word cloud of the responses and could hardly believe the results.
“I saw ‘puppy’ and I saw ‘dog’ and I saw ‘poop,’” he said. “This is crazy.”
In the middle of the two most expensive Senate races in American history, Alvin had broken through.
The race remained knotted in internal polls until the end. But Mr. Bocian couldn’t help note that Mr. Warnock had taken a two-point lead after being tied in their previous survey. “You can never be sure of causality,” his voice trailed off.
On Jan. 5, Mr. Warnock won by exactly two percentage points.
Democrats credited an array of factors as they swore in Mr. Warnock on Wednesday. Few believe they would have won without years of grass-roots organizing by Black leaders. Or without the feuding among Republicans stoked by Mr. Trump.
Alvin did make one appearance in the race’s final days to pull Mr. Warnock, in a beige zip-up sweater, across the finish line. As they strolled through another suburb, more dogs of all different breeds joined in.
“It was symbolism for how he had run his entire campaign,” Mr. Lake said. The Republican strategist, a proud dog lover himself, was stunned to learn Alvin was not Mr. Warnock’s dog.
“You could have fooled me!” he shouted. “It looked like he and that beagle had a bond!”