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Leaning left: Examining Duke's liberal tendencies

More than half of Duke students who responded to The Chronicle’s 2016 election poll said they identified closest with the Democratic Party.

Almost 76 percent of the 920 students who responded to the poll planned to vote for Hillary Clinton, compared to 6.4 percent for Donald Trump. Of the 544 respondents voting in North Carolina, about eight students supported Roy Cooper for every Pat McCrory vote in the gubernatorial race, while the Senate race saw Deborah Ross leading Richard Burr by almost a five to one ratio. 

“There's a sort of set Democrat predisposition on campus, which is a real problem for the Republican Party,” said John Aldrich, Pfizer-Pratt University professor of political science. “It is really helpful for the university to try to seek ways to ensure comfortable presentation of both sides in a nonpartisan way.”

Turning left

Almost 59 percent of students said they were more Democratic than Republican, Libertarian, Green or independent.

That number indicates an increase from 2012, when 45.3 percent of students identified as Democrats. Meanwhile, the proportion of Republican students decreased from 18.5 to 15.9 percent during the four years.

Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek, Trinity ’76, who joined the students affairs staff in 1979, noted that Duke has become more liberal during her time on campus.

“Over the last four decades, the Duke student body as a whole has moved towards the left,” she said. “It’s been a more gradual and subtle movement over time.”

The decrease of conservatives on campus comes in part from Trump winning the Republican primary, said Mac McCorkle, associate professor of the practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy.

“A very consistent, constitutionally oriented young conservative may see very little in Trump,” he said. “The interesting appeal of Trump is that he's not a consistent conservative, so he could alienate conservatives on ideological grounds and then alienate moderates because he has such a bad temperament.”

While McCrory and Burr are more conventional conservatives, poll results showed Cooper leading McCrory 45.9 percent to 5.9 percent and Ross receiving 38.5 percent of the voter to Burr’s 8 percent.

“There is almost always a hangover of the presidential candidate on at least major other office seekers,” Aldrich said. “McCrory has provided his own reasons for Duke students to want to back Cooper; HB2 comes to mind, among others.”

He said that Burr’s struggles come in part due to his “very delayed and slow and unaggressive” start to his campaign, which allowed Ross to gain name recognition.

Still, David Rohde, Ernestine Friedl professor of political science, said that the accelerated shift towards liberalism had already began prior to Trump’s inflammatory catalysis, as indicated by the strong millennial support for “two of the most liberal senators”—Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

He added that the Republican Party must pick themselves up from Trump’s negative effect if they want to reclaim youth votes and keep the party alive.

“If the Republicans aren't able to restore positive feelings among younger people, they're going to have a really tough time in the future because other demographics—especially Latinos and Asian Americans—are shifting against them,” Rohde said. “Their strongest support is dying off so the future doesn't look very bright.”

Frat stars and Pratt stars

Mitt Romney performed strongly in the 2012 poll among two core demographics—engineering students and fraternity members.

In contrast, Pratt support for Trump in 2016 stayed consistent with the general student body at 6.5 percent. Though Clinton support was lower than overall numbers at 72.3 percent, the difference was made up by either Gary Johnson or undecided voters.

“It has long been true that the kind of people who are attracted to engineering are less liberal than other college-educated citizens,” Aldrich said. “They’re more [politically] diverse and somewhat closer to the population.”

69 percent of Pratt students are males. Among the overall student body, females outpaced male support for Clinton by nearly 14 percentage points.

Aldrich is not surprised that Clinton polled strongly among Trinity students.

“Because you tend to be surrounded by people who are thinking like you more or less politically, it's less likely that you are to change and become more conservative,” he said. “It is sort of a bastion for liberal politic beliefs in a place like Trinity.”

On the other hand, Trump polled strongest among fraternities, with 10.7 percent of members indicating support.

“In the past, some of the more white and upper-middle to upper class students tended to be in fraternities,” Aldrich said.

He added that the continued support for Trump among the demographic in 2016 is more difficult to assess because Trump does not necessarily have the drawing power with affluent voters that McCain and Romney did.

“If Trump has an appeal, it's among less well-educated, rural, relatively poor people, which is not exactly what you'd call a Duke demographic,” Aldrich said. “Duke is the mainstream of the elite of the system. We are the establishment.”

Meanwhile, Clinton received 88 percent of the sorority vote, compared to 3.2 percent for Trump.

The Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Association could not be reached for comment.

Aldrich noted that female students may be “unusually offended” by leaked recordings of Trump suggesting sexual assault.

“Significant numbers of females have experiences of sexual discrimination or sexually aggressive behavior,” he said. “That's been a problem on campus, including here, so it really resonates and they're more than smart enough to pick up on that.”

‘Echo chamber’

Shifting ideologies and the vitriol of the presidential race have polarized the political climate at Duke, Wasiolek said, destroying “compassionate disagreement” and making Duke a microcosm of political dialogue nationally.

“There have been times in the past where notions of compromise and collaboration have been much more prevalent in the overall political ethos,” she said. “Among students, I’ve seen relationships suffer as a result of different political opinions.”

Students may not be making a deliberate effort to drown out opposing viewpoints, Aldrich noted, but the vocal left has inadvertently done so.

“As things tip from 50-50 to being increasingly one sided, the incentives for speaking out as the minority become less. You don't know who else cherishes your opinion,” he said. “It need not be anything intention about it at all, but it has that effect of an echo chamber—a self reinforcing majority that tends to grow.”

Junior Amy Wang, president of Duke for Hillary and a vice president of Duke Democrats, said it is important for conservatives, including members of Duke College Republicans, to also be heard on campus.

“I would hope that there's some way that we can communicate with them more to make sure their voices are also being heard, because this is a dialogue that needs to be said,” she said. “Ultimately, we're not looking for people to support us, we're looking for people to genuinely feel strongly about politics, period.”

Duke College Republicans did not respond to emails from The Chronicle.

Aldrich said that the University can moderate the liberal skew by presenting opposing viewpoints through course curriculum and bipartisan events.

“The value of a liberal arts education is to be able to weigh all sides, to be able to ask questions, to be able to think deeply about all of the viewpoints that are out there,” Aldrich said.

Wasiolek noted that faculty and students were equally responsible for fostering political discourse alongside the institution.

Still, faculty members agree that Trump has not made a positive effort to attract the youth vote.

“It's hard to imagine a candidate who's done more to repel a Duke student than Donald J. Trump,” said Aldrich said.

Even among Republican respondents, Trump barely beat Clinton at 32.6 percent to 31.2 percent.

“That's a remarkable defection rate in current American politics,” Rohde said. “The last three or four elections, that's down to about five, six or seven percent, so to have a third of Republicans say that they're going to vote for somebody else is really remarkable.”

Others said a Trump upset victory would go against the long-term direction of the country.

“The voters you are talking to are the voters who are going to be voting later in life for a long time,” McCorkle said. “For any kind of presidential candidate to be in single digits, it does bode badly for the nation if Trump somehow won because he's so profoundly unpopular with the Duke-educated segment of the electorate.”