¿Hablar español o no? How speaking Spanish on the campaign trail helps some political candidates but hurts others

Rendering of candidate speaking to crowd.

Speaking Spanish on the campaign trail may seem like a good way to connect with some voters, but new research from Rice University finds it can actually hurt the chances of Hispanic candidates who aren’t native speakers.

Rendering of candidate speaking to crowd.
Photo credit: 123rf.com

“Se Habla Español: Spanish-Language Appeals and Candidate Evaluations in the United States” examines how speaking Spanish affects candidates’ success when voters know nothing else about them. The research included a national sample of Hispanic and Anglo voters.

Researchers Marques Zárate and Enrique Quezada-Llanes, both graduate students in the Department of Political Science at Rice, and Angel Armenta, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, ran experiments in which participants listened to an audio clip of a hypothetical candidate’s stump speech. They varied the ethnicity of the candidate (Anglo or Hispanic) and the language of the speech (English, non-native Spanish and native-like Spanish).

The researchers found Hispanic support for both Anglo and Hispanic candidates was higher when the candidates spoke native-level Spanish compared to English only. They also found that non-native-level Spanish yields the same support for Anglo candidates as just speaking English, while support decreases for Hispanic candidates who don’t speak native-level Spanish.

“Our results suggest that candidates can effectively appeal to Hispanic voters using Spanish-language messages, but their fluency matters,” Quezada-Llanes said.

The study, which will appear in an upcoming volume of the American Political Science Review, is online at https://bit.ly/3ziT3RB.