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Barbour's Drawl Gets New Hampshire Debut

Chris Fitzgerald/Newscom
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour tours Riley’s Gun Shop in Hooksett, N.H., this month.

And he was largely dismissive when asked whether his Southern roots complicated his ability to connect with local voters. “Not so far,” he said.

How Advanced Is the Shift?

The Mississippi governor has what is referred to as “an advanced Southern shift,” according to Kara Becker, an assistant professor of linguistics at Reed College.

“That means his vowels have shifted from the position of standard American English in a way that characterizes Southern speech,” she said, noting that Barbour’s shift exceeds that of President Jimmy Carter, of Georgia, and Arkansas native Clinton, who finished first and second, respectively, in their New Hampshire primaries. 

“When we work with accents, there’s a question of degree,” Becker continued. “It sounds from what I hear that this guy has all of it going on.”

The effect on voters is open to debate, however.

The Southern accent is the most marked in American culture and sometimes carries a stigma, according to Becker. “A lot of negative qualities we think about Southern people we think about the Southern accent,” she said. Specifically, she believes the drawl can evoke an uneducated, working-class stereotype.

On the other hand, politicians such as Carter and Clinton were able to use the drawl to their advantage, something Becker calls the “Dolly Parton stereotype.”

“They’re tapping into the positive attributes — ‘Come up on my porch and have a mint julep. I’m pleasant. I’m kind,’” she said.

Another expert suggested that accents no longer play a significant role in American politics.

“About 30 or 40 years ago, I would have even been so bold as to say that a Southerner wouldn’t have much of a chance of being president,” said Allan Metcalf, an English professor at MacMurray College and author of the 2004 book “Presidential Voices.” “But since that time, we’ve had a few. People are used to that.”

Fixin’ to Get Folksy

Barbour’s drawl inspired a few blank stares during breakfast — a waitress later admitted she wasn’t sure she understood his order — but he generally demonstrated a folksiness that diners could identify with.

It didn’t seem to matter that he drank tea with his eggs over light or began sentences with phrases such as, “I was just fixin’ to ask you something.” Voters got it when he referenced “kays” (keys) or “ta-em” (time), as the discussion often turned to common interests such as huntin’ and fishin’.

“On a one-to-one basis, he’s very engaging. He’s got charisma. He’s got a very good sense of humor. He’s self-deprecating. And that’s going to help him,” Ovide Lamontagne, a New Hampshire conservative leader, told Roll Call. “The one thing that struck me in listening to him is that he’s very comfortable in his skin. For political observers and ultimately voters, authenticity is an important part of the fabric of the candidate in this election cycle. ... But he’s brand-new to us. Even though we know his name, a lot of us don’t know him personally.”

Lamontagne said he wants to learn more about Barbour’s background before rating his conservative credentials. 

It’s no secret that Barbour has strong ties to the Washington, D.C., establishment as a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and Republican Governors Association.

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