Jeb Bush’s doomed Republican primary run was fraught with strategic errors, from the awkward exclamation point in his slogan (Jeb!) to his feeble attempts to defy the primary’s party crasher par excellence, Donald Trump. But a new study by political science professor Alexander Coppock shows one thing that Jeb got right: his outreach to Hispanic voters.
In the days before the New Hampshire primary, Jeb released two ads in which he spoke directly to the camera. In one, he used English; in the other, Spanish. Coppock looked into the effects of the Spanish-language ad on Spanish-English bilinguals, and found that support from Hispanic primary voters was six percentage points higher than those who watched the English version. Their support increased by five points in a hypothetical matchup with Hillary Clinton.
What’s remarkable about Jeb’s bilingual strategy is that he managed to create a perfect test case for isolating language as a factor in attitudes toward political candidates. Coppock’s study notes that while many candidates have used Spanish-language ads before, they’ve rarely had an identical counterpart in English. Campaigns usually change the message to target their Hispanic audience.
But Jeb didn’t. Both his Spanish and English-language ads were nearly identical in content. His success among Hispanics shows the power that language holds in the mind of a voter. But why?
Language Makes Us Who We Are
Politicians are always trying to reach out to different identity groups, sometimes looking ridiculous in their efforts to do so. Trump famously ate a taco bowl to prove his friendliness toward Mexican-Americans, after months of “wall building” rhetoric. Hillary Clinton took a lot of flak for claiming that she always carries hot sauce in her bag while being interviewed on a hip-hop morning show with a large African-American audience. These efforts utilized narrow cultural touchstones to relate to ethnic and racial communities.
Language, on the other hand, is one of the most powerful ways to reach a group of people: unlike hot sauce, language is a crucial aspect of identity, culture, and sense of self. This may sound like a lot of progressive nonsense, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Language is the conduit for all human relationships. It’s part of how we think and how we make our thoughts known to others. Our native language is the one in which we first heard the voice of our mother. The first time someone told us “I love you,” those words were disseminated through the medium of language. Language constitutes the entire framework of our lives and our interactions with the world. So it’s not surprising that peoples’ attitudes toward language are often very powerful and bleed over into other areas.
Language Evokes A Strong Sense of Allegiance
In fact, language perceptions often act as a proxy for how people view the culture or society most closely related to that language. In sociolinguistic studies, researchers have found that participants make judgments on individuals’ personality, level of religious devotion, intelligence, etc., all based solely on their language or dialect. People even attribute moral values—such as “holy” or “good”—to languages themselves, something a system of communication can’t possibly boast. These judgments have mostly to do with the person’s feelings toward the culture or society that the language in question represents.
While most people have strong positive feelings about their native language, these are even more pronounced in immigrant communities. These groups tend to have more positive views of the language and culture of their heritage than even people back home. If you’ve ever studied or lived abroad, think for a moment of the relief that washed over you when you heard another English speaker at a café or bar. In that moment, the voice of a stranger sounded like home.
Immigrant groups, like Mexican-Americans, see language as a link to their heritage, family, or religion. In this way, language has a strong affiliation with Mexican culture. Language attitudes are also important when it comes to national identity. Mexican-Americans with positive attitudes toward Spanish are likely to feel a sense of national pride.
So it makes sense that seeing Jeb Bush speak about his policies in Spanish would tap into Hispanics’ sense of identity and have a tangible effect on their voting practices. People experience the world through language, and seeing our language represented in a particular context influences our attitudes toward that topic, place, or person.
By putting out Spanish-language versions of a political ad, Jeb Bush made a new connection between the Spanish language and American national identity. It sends a message to Hispanic voters that Spanish isn’t just a link to their Mexican or Central American heritage, but can also serve as a link to their new home and its political process.
Jeb Bush Reached Out To Voters Without Being Patronizing
Political ads often feel slimy and condescending. Politicians pander to a target audience by pretending to care for hot-button issues their advisors say are important to that group.
But instead of condescending to Hispanic voters in this way, Jeb Bush communicated his vision to them in their own language. He showed enough respect not to change his message to suit them. He respected them enough to let them decide for themselves whether they approve of his policies.
That’s a far cry better than hot sauce or a taco bowl. But this is 2016, so instead of a generous and respectful view of American identity, we get the taco bowl.