“Hey, did you hear about Trump campaigning on campus?” said no Duke student ever.
North Carolina’s status as a battleground state has driven both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump—along with their surrogates—to North Carolina to drum up support. Both candidates, vice-presidential nominees Tim Kaine and Mike Pence, as well as both First Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama have rallied in North Carolina, often speaking on college campuses.
For example, both Kaine and Michelle Obama have spoken at North Carolina Central University this month, and Clinton has addressed students at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Notably missing from the list of campaign stops, however, is Duke. Surrogates—including Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan and former NBA player Jason Collins—have made the trip, but never the candidates themselves.
John Burness—visiting professor of the practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy and former senior vice president for public affairs and government relations—said this is nothing new. Despite serving at Duke for 17 years, he could not remember a presidential or vice-presidential candidate choosing to campaign on campus. (Trump did visit campus for a basketball game 13 or 14 years ago, he said).
What is it about Duke that attracts basketball fans, students and faculty from all around the world, but not politicians? Campus leaders had some ideas.
An 'elitist' school
Duke’s reputation as a prestigious institution may deter candidates from visiting for fear of seeming out-of-touch, noted Michael Schoenfeld, current vice president for public affairs and government relations.
“Candidates and high profile surrogates tend to gravitate to larger public universities when they make big campaign stops," he wrote in an email. "I think in part because they are seen as more relatable to voters and perhaps less ‘elitist’ than selective private universities like Duke or an Ivy school.'"
Burness noted that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill or North Carolina State University would be more valuable campaign stops politically—"a lot of people hate Duke," he said.
And campaigns striving to associate with public schools rather than private ones is not a surprise, said Pope McCorkle, associate professor of the practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy. Some candidates may fear backlash from their opponents for cultivating too close a connection with reputable universities.
“For Clinton to come to Duke, you would probably hear Trump say something about it,” he said.
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Another related factor may be Duke’s diverse out-of-state—and even out-of-country—population. Public universities, on the other hand, tend to have larger percentages of in-state residents.
“Many Duke students are from out of state and either aren't registered in North Carolina or want to vote in their home states,” said Junior Matthew King, former YOUnite president and a columnist for The Chronicle.
Senior Adam Lemon, former Duke College Republicans president, said a rally at UNC or NC State would relate more with North Carolina residents—who might view those universities as being more connected to the state.
Duke’s liberal tilt may also discourage politicians from visiting—either because they know they’ve already secured students’ votes or don't have a chance of getting them.
“To a certain extent, Clinton should be assuming she will get a lot of Duke votes, and Trump would probably assume that he wouldn't get many,” McCorkle said.
Lemon echoed this sentiment—if Trump visited Duke, "there would be a very small group of supporters and a large group of protestors.”
Durham in itself is very Democratic, Schoenfeld wrote, making the area a less crucial campaign stop in general. Obama got 75.9 percent of the Durham County vote in 2012, even though then-Republican nominee Mitt Romney won the state.
“You won't see as many visits as you would to, say, Raleigh, which is more divided, or Charlotte, which is a major media market,” he wrote.
Republican candidates need to go where the votes are, King said, noting that some might have “written off” college campuses because most are generally liberal. Trump and Pence have not made many stops at North Carolina universities, unlike Clinton and Kaine.
Lemon said he has struggled to bring Republican candidates to campus for Duke College Republicans. He has attempted to bring former presidential candidate Jeb Bush and Incumbent Governor Pat McCrory to campus—without any luck.
“Neither were interested, but they had events at UNC down the road,” he said.
Some student leaders suggested that the University itself makes it difficult for politicians to visit. King explained that student groups have to complete “onerous procedures” to bring politicians on-campus. This is often not ideal, given the frenetic pace of presidential campaigns.
King originally wanted to bring a gubernatorial or senatorial debate to campus this Fall, but decided hosting watch parties would be the easier option.
Not only does Duke need to streamline the process for politicians to come to campus, King said, but students also need to be less afraid of inviting controversial speakers.
“I would absolutely love to have more politicians make pit stops at Duke and shake hands and kiss babies on the Bryan Center plaza,” he said. “It would mean Duke students would be more engaged voters.”
Schoenfeld said that many spaces at Duke are reserved and used constantly, which poses challenges for scheduling last-minute events.
Junior Amy Wang, vice president of Duke Democrats, said University has not made clear it is open to political campaign stops.
“It hasn’t pushed for candidates to come to Duke,” she said.
However, Schoenfeld noted that Duke is open to hosting candidates.
"If it can be accommodated, we will," he said.
Is Duke losing out?
Although Trump and Clinton are not holding rallies on the Main Quad, there are still opportunities for students to engage in the election, including the early voting site on Central Campus.
“It’s not like they haven’t been nearby, just not at Duke,” Burness said.
McCorkle agreed—although rallies can be beneficial for students, he said there hasn't exactly been a shortage of campaign stops relatively close by in North Carolina.
Rallies on campus might not even sway the minds of undecided voters, Wang said, because policies and platforms can always be explained outside of a rally.
“Even if they did come on campus, the people who would go to see them would be people who had already made up their mind about the election,” she said.