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A Harvard researcher tested a field of hypothetical candidates and found talking about animal welfare could actually boost voter support.
Words by Grace Hussain
Every November voters cast their ballots to determine who will be the next leaders of the United States. But there is at least one issue that usually isn’t mentioned by candidates: farm animal rights. Omitting this discussion from the conversation stems from the longheld belief that talking about animals is essentially campaign suicide. New research from Harvard’s Sparsha Saha, PhD, challenges the belief and suggests that, for some candidates, talking about animals may actually boost their votes.
The study, which focused on a hypothetical presidential primary, included two separate experiments. The first presented one of four speeches from a hypothetical contender to 1,872 US citizens and put several questions to voters about their perception of the candidate.
The second experiment focused on identity politics by presenting candidates with various attributes — such as being vegan or having different racial identities. Participants were asked to choose which of two candidates they would be more likely to vote for.
According to Saha’s findings, just talking about farm animal welfare does not negatively impact the number of votes a candidate receives and, what’s more, contenders who do may actually experience a bump in votes.
“What I found…is that there is taste out there for animal friendly candidates and farm animal rights,” said Saha, who was surprised by the results. Going into the study, she anticipated that her research would back up the conventional wisdom — that talking about these issues would have a serious negative impact on campaigns and voter support.
Yet surprisingly, according to her analysis, when her hypothetical candidate talked about farmed animal welfare by calling for clearer limits on how they can be treated, they faced “no electoral backlash” compared to the candidate who didn’t mention animal welfare at all.
In fact, voters view candidates who express support for farmed animals as even more empathetic than their challengers. According to Saha, empathy is an extremely important trait for winning elections, in part due to the role it plays in building connection with voters. When it comes to animal-loving candidates, Saha suspects “that animal-friendly candidates are able to credibly signal their empathy to voters, and that’s what voters are responding to.”
Some candidates might actually experience a boost in the number of votes they receive from voicing their concerns for animals. In her second experiment, Saha tested various identity groups — dietary preferences, pets, personal support for animal rights, race and gender — to determine their influence, if any, on voter choice.
The research showed that “a candidate who has rescued farm animals or strongly supports animal rights was more likely to win their election, all else equal.” When compared to a challenger who doesn’t support animal welfare, the candidate who does was 17.3 percent more likely to win. And hypothetical candidates who owned rescued farmed animals could expect a 9 percent boost. Meanwhile, vegan candidates were 6 percent less likely to win as compared to non-vegan candidates — this tracks with previous research on resistance to messaging from vegans.
According to the analysis, candidates who were vocal about wanting to address the climate impacts of meat production were likely to receive fewer votes. This split largely took place along party lines with Democrats being mostly neutral on the issue and Republicans more likely to withhold their support of the candidate.
But it’s more complicated than party affiliation. Location also matters. “If you’re a Democratic candidate running in a primary on the West Coast, you can probably bring up climate policy involving meat and do really well,” said Saha. But in rural areas — regions that would be most heavily impacted by restrictions on meat production — Saha found the opposite. Among rural respondents the drop in support for candidates who talked about meat’s environmental impact was more than triple that of urban respondents.
Perhaps surprisingly, both Republicans and Democrats preferred candidates who supported animal rights and even those who rescue farm animals, Saha’s research found. The research points to an opportunity for collaboration across the aisle, according to Saha. “It’s an unknown issue area in American politics, neither Democrats nor Republicans own it,” she says. “And there is concern on both the left and the right. So why does this not become politicized and become an area of collaboration instead of an area of polarization?”
Gender and race do add a layer of complexity. When choosing among the candidates who support animal rights, Republicans preferred white men, whereas Democrats showed greater support for Black women and Latina candidates with those views. For example, a Democratic Latina candidate was likely to have a 17.2 percent boost in popularity among party voters.
One of the key takeaways for advocacy organizations is to take a closer look at themselves, and ensure that the voices of marginalized people are included, says Saha, who argues that “race and gender really matter to the politics of animal rights.”
The bottom line is that this research upends what has been the dominant narrative: to “keep [farm animal rights] quiet, don’t politicize it, don’t get embroiled in a culture war,” says Saha. “I think that’s a misguided paradigm. I think meat is political. I think food is politics. And I think if you want to see any real meaningful changes, you have to engage in the politics of it.”
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