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January 20, 2019

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Titus turns albatross into eagle: Southern accent has its charms

Titus accent

A TV ad run by Freedom’s Watch, a conservative lobbying group, makes fun of Dina Titus’ Southern accent but uses a Texas cowboy theme to conflate “Texas” and “tax us.”

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Reality Check: Dina Titus' "Accent" campaign ad

Jon Ralston analyzes a campaign ad that Dina Titus has running in Nevada titled "Accent".

No politician is going to win an election without connecting with the voters. But what if the mere sound of your voice turned some people off? What then?

Well, if you’re Dina Titus, you open your TV campaign with a folksy ad featuring your mom that gently pokes fun at your Southern twang and hope that by being in on the joke you get the issue off the table.

Not quite.

Titus’ opposition in the contentious race for the 3rd Congressional District has seized on her nasal Georgia drawl as a weak spot to exploit — and maybe for good reason. An accent affects voters.

Freedom’s Watch, a Washington-based conservative lobbying group, started running a TV ad last week that aims to tag Titus with a tax-and-spend label. The announcer mocks Titus’ accent by putting on a sarcastically exaggerated Southern drawl when she says the words “Texas” and “Taxes.”

Ed Patru, spokesman for the group, said it used the accent as an attention-getter to make the ad stand out among the many that run in the last weeks leading up to Election Day.

“We think certainly her charming accent is difficult to ignore, and we hope that when this ad is done running her horrendous record on taxes will be equally difficult to ignore,” Patru said, employing a little sarcasm of his own.

(Incidentally, for those who are keeping score, the announcer in the ad, which wasn’t produced here, pronounces the state’s name as Ne-vah-da.)

An accent has a role to play in an election: Voters need to identify with candidates almost as much as agree with them on the issues. And how someone talks is a key part of our evaluation process, experts say.

“We form our first impression by the way someone sounds,” said Lynda Katz Wilner, a speech pathologist who coaches people on better communication.

Voice is also used as one criterion to make overall, defining judgments about someone, she said. A famous UCLA study about image and perception found people give significantly more weight to body language and how a speaker sounds than to what is actually said when interpreting the speaker’s attitude and feelings.

A pronounced accent can amplify that tendency, Katz Wilner said. The audience doesn’t listen to the content of what’s being said but rather how the person is talking.

“The voice itself takes over the conversation,” she said.

That is particularly troubling in politics, an arena where controlling the message is key to winning. And it matters even more in a tight race like the one Titus is locked into with her Republican opponent, Rep. Jon Porter.

This is Titus’ second big race in Nevada — she lost the governor’s race in 2006 to Republican Jim Gibbons — and her voice handicapped her then.

According to a Republican operative familiar with polling from that election, registered voters across the state who reported an unfavorable impression of Titus often brought up dislike of her accent.

This time around Titus addressed that potential distraction head-on with the ad featuring her mother. In it, Titus says: “People ask me why after 30 years in Las Vegas I still have an accent.” Then her mom pipes in with the same accent and delivers the punch line: “What accent?”

Titus campaign spokesman Andrew Stoddard said the ad was simply meant to introduce Titus to new residents who may not be familiar with her. The campaign doesn’t want them to think her drawl means she hasn’t been in Nevada long.

That perception — that she is an outsider — could be a detriment to her campaign.

“People vote on identity,” said George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied speech and politics.

Something as seemingly innocuous as an accent can matter because it contributes to how people relate to others and whether they trust people, he said. Voters want to choose someone who is like them — and that includes how they sound.

That Titus’ accent is Southern makes the issue more complicated, given the stereotypes about that region of the country. Anthony Greenwald, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, said Southern accents that sound working class tend to be associated with stereotypes that the person isn’t well-educated or accomplished, and is perhaps even ignorant.

But it’s not just a regional dialect that affects perception. Tone of voice also shapes people’s impressions and whether they find the speaker appealing, Katz Wilner said. Just think James Earl Jones. There’s a reason he’s tapped to narrate everything under the sun: Resonance counts.

“A twangy, nasal voice doesn’t sound like a real powerful woman,” Katz Wilner said.

Titus isn’t alone in being picked on for the way she speaks. There has been plenty of commentary about Sarah Palin’s accent ever since she joined Sen. John McCain’s ticket. And critics blasted Sen. Hillary Clinton for being shrill.

When it comes to voice, Katz Wilner said, “women have more to deal with to present themselves in a powerful way.”

Titus’ voice is still turning up in conversation, but the “accent” ad might have turned that potential negative into a plus. According to her campaign, voters have been charmed by the ad.

“I’ve never seen such a vocal reaction to an ad before,” Stoddard said. “It’s been unbelievable.”

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