Jeff Sessions speaking at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC. (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Candidates with a Southern accent are viewed more negatively — even in the South

New research indicates that Americans are less likely to say they would vote for a candidate with Southern accent compared to a candidate without an accent.

The study, conducted by researchers at Western Carolina University and published in the journal American Politics Research, found that candidates with a Southern drawl are viewed more negatively on a number of traits.

“All four of us are interested in campaigns and elections (why and how voters make the decisions they do) and the politics of the American South,” said study author Christopher A. Cooper. “We were compelled by a number of other studies that have noted that voters often use non-policy related candidate characteristics to help steer them towards (or away from) particular candidates.”

“At the same time, we were struck that none of those studies had examined region of origin as a characteristic that might affect voters decision-making — and we believed that the accent is the most readily available cue of region of origin. Conversations around those themes brought the four of us together to work on this study.”

For the study, the researchers had 757 participants from Alabama and Connecticut listen to a 1-minute campaign speech from a fictitious political candidate. The speech was either read by a male candidate with a Southern accent, a male candidate with a neutral accent, a female candidate with a Southern accent, or a female candidate with a neutral accent. But in all four cases the content of the speech was the same.

The candidate with a Southern accent was viewed as less trustworthy, less honest, less intelligent, and less competent. Participants also assumed the candidate was more conservative and rated them as less likeable when he or she had a Southern accent.

“The Southern accent can be a detriment to political candidates,” Cooper told PsyPost. “Surprisingly, the negative attributes associated with the Southern accent exist even among Southerners themselves. These accents also come with political assumptions about ideology and issue stances, which candidates should keep in mind when trying to communicate their agendas.”

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has a thick Southern accent reminiscent of former Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings.

The researchers found that participants were less likely to believe that the candidate would “look out for people like me” and were less likely to say they would vote for the candidate when he or she had a Southern accent.

Gender did not appear to have much of an influence, except in one area. Female candidates with a Southern accent were viewed as less likeable than their male counterparts with a Southern accent.

However, the study — like all research — has its limitations.

“In this study, we include voices from two actors (one male and one female),” Cooper explained. “Both of these actors are white. We suspect that the same effects would be present for minorities with Southern accents, but our design and data do not allow us to speak to this question.”

“We also don’t have a good sense of how much an accent might compare to other potential non-policy cues like appearance. Perhaps most importantly, respondents in our study listened to a 1-minute recording of the candidate describing his or her background and some issue stances. In the real world, voters may have more exposure to a politician than a short voice recording before they make judgments about them.”

The study, “The Southern Accent as a Heuristic in American Campaigns and Elections“, was authored by Karyn Amira, Christopher A. Cooper, H. Gibbs Knotts, and Claire Wofford.