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Race and Ethnicity

How the Words Candidates Use Affect Their Campaigns

Was the Pennsylvania senate race decided by...vegetables?

Key points

  • The language that politicians use can greatly affect how they are perceived.
  • Foreign terms tend to be viewed with suspicion.
  • Mehmet Oz's reference to "crudité" marked him as an outsider.
Source: Joshua Santos/Pexels; kuppa_rock/iStock; Handmade Pictures/iStock
Source: Joshua Santos/Pexels; kuppa_rock/iStock; Handmade Pictures/iStock

Now that the U.S. midterm elections have been decided, it may be worth considering how the language used by candidates affected their political fortunes. This factor may have been especially important in the Pennsylvania Senate race.

The Pennsylvania Senate Race

John Fetterman, the state’s Democratic lieutenant governor, easily won his primary in May 2022. His political opponent was Mehmet Oz, who edged out his closest Republican challenger by less than 1,000 votes. Oz was a well-known celebrity physician and surgeon, familiar to millions from his appearances on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." His own program, "The Dr. Oz Show," had been on the air for more than a decade. Pundits predicted a close race between the two men.

Fetterman did his best to paint Oz as an outsider. He portrayed Oz as someone who did not live in the state and as a member of the wealthy elite, out of touch with the lives of ordinary Pennsylvanians. In an attempt to counter this image, Oz recorded a video in which he grocery shops for his wife. The intent of the clip was to call attention to the high price of groceries—a pocketbook issue that would resonate with voters trying to make ends meet.

At the beginning of the 38-second clip, Oz states that he’s shopping at “Wegner’s,” even though the signs in the background make clear that he’s at a Redner’s store. It seems that he was confusing Redner’s with Wegmans, another local grocery chain. This was not a promising beginning if Oz’s goal was to burnish his bona fides as a true Pennsylvanian.

He continues, “My wife wants some vegetables for a crudité, right?” During the rest of the video, Oz laments the high price of the vegetables, guacamole, and salsa that he’s picking up in the produce aisle. Looking into the camera at the end, he exclaims, “Guys, that’s $20 for crudité, and this doesn’t include the tequila. I mean, that’s outrageous! And we’ve got Joe Biden to thank for this.”

The video was recorded and distributed in April, but the clip went viral when it was reposted on social media in August. Although Oz’s mangling of the grocery store’s name was remarked upon, it was his reference to raw vegetable appetizers as “crudité” that drew the most attention. Fetterman made a point of retweeting his opponent’s video, along with the comment that “In PA we call this a veggie tray.” The following day, Fetterman’s campaign reported that it had collected more than a half million dollars in donations.

Use of Foreign-Language Terms

What’s wrong with the word crudité? As Fetterman implied in his rejoinder, it’s not a term that everybody knows; nor is it one that most people use. This is partly because it’s a relatively recent arrival. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest appearance of the French term in English was in a cookbook published in 1960.

In addition, crudité is one of several loan words from French that can make their users sound like they are putting on airs. Other examples include armoire for a wardrobe, carafe for a bottle or jug, coiffure for a hairstyle, and oeuvre for collected works. Why make use of an affected foreign term when there are ordinary and familiar equivalents?

In addition, it's worth noting that Oz was trying to appeal to voters across the entire state of Pennsylvania. Even though Philadelphia is the sixth-largest city in the nation and Pittsburgh anchors the southwest corner of the state, most of Pennsylvania is rural. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Pennsylvania has the third largest rural population of the 50 states, surpassed only by Texas and North Carolina. And it’s unlikely that rural voters thought that Oz sounded like one of them by employing a term that was more Hollywood than Harrisburg.

Fetterman had his own struggles during the senate campaign: A stroke in May was followed by a slow recovery over the summer. And in a debate with Oz in October, Fetterman’s continuing issues with language processing were on full display. Nonetheless, he went on to win the election with 51 percent of the vote. Time magazine reported that Fetterman outperformed President Biden’s 2020 electoral haul by 8 to 10 percent in some rural counties, and this may have been enough to be decisive.

Oz’s faux pas isn’t unique in the annals of U.S. electoral history. As I describe in my book on miscommunication, at least two presidential campaigns have been derailed in similar ways. George Romney’s quest for the 1968 Republican nomination wilted after he said that he was “brainwashed” during a trip to South Vietnam. And, in 2016, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson mortally wounded his own bid when he was unable to recognize a reference to “Aleppo” as a city in Syria.

We judge politicians in many ways: by what they believe in, by what they’re willing to fight for, and by how they’ve lived their lives. But we also judge them by what they say and how they say it. And given the premium that voters place on authenticity and genuineness, it’s perhaps not surprising that verbal missteps during a campaign can loom large in the electorate’s collective imagination—and disproportionately affect whom they vote for.

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