Speaking Voters' Language, Literally

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Robert Galbraith / Reuters

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a town hall meeting at Hartnell College in Salinas, California, January 22, 2008.

With 22 states holding their primaries and caucuses on February 5's "Tsunami Tuesday," the presidential candidates now find themselves not only campaigning across the country, but also trying to win the support of the different ethnic communities that can deliver a bloc of votes.

So don't be surprised to see Mitt Romney or Barack Obama don a yarmulke in Brooklyn or Hillary Clinton or John McCain down a tamale in Los Angeles. But the most direct way that politicians try to curry favor with their ethnic audience is to try to speak like them. Nothing forges as much of a connection — or presents as great a risk — as trying to address an audience in their native tongue.

Of course, if a candidate can actually speak the language, then there's no problem. Senator Chris Dodd is a fluent Spanish speaker from his years in the Peace Corps, and Senator Tom Harkin — who has a deaf brother — was able to address the Democratic National Convention in sign language. But it's a high bar, and more often than not, candidates can't clear it.

We all have heard about John F. Kennedy's pronouncement at the Berlin Wall, "Ich bin ein Berliner" — which some people insisted could have been understood as, "I am a jelly doughnut."

But few pick up on the subtle missteps that only a native speaking audience — and the candidates' embarrassed speechwriters — remember. In 1999, one of us watched Vice President Al Gore trip up on the last sentence of a speech to the United Jewish Communities conference because of a mispronounced word of Hebrew, rendering it unintelligible to the audience (Gore recovered admirably, and no speechwriter was fired).

During that same election and in years since, George W. Bush's frequent use of Spanish in speeches has made news. Bush's proficiency may pass muster under No Child Left Behind, but according to former Mexican President Vicente Fox, it's an embarrassing "grade-school"-level Spanish.

In October 2004, at a campaign rally in Florida, John Kerry noticed an enthusiastic response to his ringing pronouncements about helping Haiti, and in a pander to the Haitians in the audience, switched to French saying: "Je vais aider les Haitiens" (I will help the Haitians). Some French speakers later reported that he sounded like he said, "I will help the States," or "I will help the Chechens." And we translated it as: "I will confirm every stereotype accusing me of being an effete internationalist."

This year, the candidates are focusing on Latinos, and brushing up on their Spanish. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney both released Spanish language television ads in Florida that concluded with each of them stumbling through the Spanish version of "I approve this message." On the Democratic side, Barack Obama does the same in his ads, though he has yet to find an audience to use his fluent Indonesian. Both the Hillary Clinton and Obama campaigns have recently released Spanish-language ads, with Obama's ad featuring a shot of Ted Kennedy, who just endorsed the Illinois Senator.

And just last week, Hillary Clinton was heard at a rally in Salinas, California, accepting the coveted endorsement of the United Farmworkers Union, "Si se pueda is right! That's right, yes we can!" Unfortunately, she can't — the slogan is "Sí se puede." Now, in Senator Clinton's defense, she's the first to tell audiences that languages aren't her strongest suit, citing a college French teacher who told her: "Mademoiselle, your talents lie elsewhere."

But Clinton supporters should not fret: bilingualism does not correlate with electability. The most fluent Spanish speaker of all the major modern presidential nominees was Michael Dukakis, and there's no misunderstanding what the American electorate had to say about him.

Kenneth Baer is the founder of Baer Communications, LLC. Jeff Nussbaum is a principal of the communications firm West Wing Writers. Both were speechwriters for Vice President Al Gore