Midterms and Media with Michael Schoenfeld


DPR’s Interviews Managing Editor Megan Steinkirchner sat down with Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations, for a conversation about midterm elections in North Carolina.

DPR: Describe your job in two sentences for students.

Michael Schoenfeld: I am the chief communications officer and the chief lobbyist for Duke University.  So I’m the PR guy, the advocate, and I’m responsible for everything that says “Duke” on it, regardless of where it is.

DPR: We are in full swing of midterm election season.  What do you think are some of the most important issues for voters and students in North Carolina to be informed of?

MS: I think if you had asked that question six months ago, the answer would have been… Obamacare, Obamacare, Obamacare, and in case you missed it, Obamacare. Six months ago, if anybody had said that the issues dominating people’s attention today would be ISIS, Syria, Iraq, terrorism, Russia, and of course, the economy, it would have been a surprise.  So you’ve got big international issues that are overlaying all of the Senate races to a much greater degree than anticipated.

In North Carolina, you’ve had this interesting approach where both the candidates are trying to localize a U.S. Senate race.  You’re seeing ads with both candidates attacking each other based on their records as state politicians.  The U.S. Senate has nothing to do with teacher’s salaries in North Carolina.  Yet, that is now a theme of the North Carolina Senate race.  Obamacare, which had dominated the year of advertising beforehand—and certainly the Republican advertising against Senator Hagan—hasn’t quite disappeared but it is much less of a public issue than earlier.  That of course could change in the next 40 days, as can a lot of things.  But for students, I think it is all of these issues – federal budget, taxes, healthcare, education, foreign policy, energy, and the environment.  Any issue that is on the agenda for a candidate should be of interest to students.

DPR: What role do you think media has played in Senator Hagan and Speaker Tillis’ campaigns so far?

MS: The media is certainly important in setting the tone and content for the campaigns. But it depends on how you define media.  If you define media as anything that people see on TV, hear on the radio, see online, get exposed to, then obviously it’s hugely important.  Think about this: more money had been spent in North Carolina by outside, independent expenditure groups than any other Senate race. Little old North Carolina! So this is a battleground.  We have raging uncertainty and raging ambivalence in North Carolina about who we are, and the close margins in the current Senate race show that. There was a very interesting article Monday on the front page of the New York Times about the contradictions of the state of North Carolina and how that plays out politically.

Media in general is obviously hugely important.  Most people never meet their Senator… so what they know about a candidate is going to be shaped by the news media, by advertising, and by the campaign activity.  So local media is hugely important, national media is hugely important, and social media is hugely important.

DPR: Do you think that social media or any of the political advertisements have misconstrued the campaign goals of either of the candidates?

MS: Well I think that’s the goal of the campaigns.  I don’t want to say that candidates intentionally mischaracterize, but a campaign today is about taking your opponent’s positions and turning them into the least attractive version of whatever they were trying to do or say.  But, on the other hand, it works. There are a lot of studies that show that negative advertising tends to be more accurate and very powerful because it’s highly specific.  And especially when you contrast it with anything positive—anything positive tends to come off as kind of loopy.  “Vote for me because I’m in favor of children!” Well who isn’t in favor of children?

There was [an ad] in the Arkansas Senate race last week that was being run by Democrat Mark Pryor against Republican Tom Cotton and it took a vote that [Cotton] made on some amendment to some bill that didn’t increase funding for first responders.  What did he vote?  Who knows.  Why did he vote it? It probably was attached to a larger bill, but in any case, it was a vote against increasing funding for first responders, which this ad basically said that [Cotton] was “Pro-Ebola.”

The other part of [the ad] was that apparently he had voted against an amendment to a bill that would have increased funding for children’s hospitals.  So as a result Cotton was pro-Ebola and anti-child. It was one of the more memorable ads of the year, I think, though it’s always hard to tell whether any single ad has a decisive impact.  Any aspect of your record—and increasingly, your personal activity—is going to be zeroed in on.  And you wonder why people are reluctant to run for office.

DPR: Do you think that public opinion of President Obama and some of his measures are going to have a significant affect on the outcome of the North Carolina election?

MS: Yes.  Clearly, the President’s popularity nationally is pretty shaky and that is especially the case in North Carolina. Although, we seem to be a truly purple state – right at 50%.  I think in a state where everything is 50/50, you don’t need to move a huge number of people.   You just need to move a few people; that could be the margin.  The margin very well could be a few people voting against Obama.

DPR: About the Higher Education Act – how do you think the reauthorization could affect Duke and institutions of higher learning?

MS: Well there hasn’t been a Higher Education Act in a long time, also because the Congress hasn’t been able to get any legislation other than Ebola and children out (laughs).  So it’s too soon to tell because we have one very early draft that one person has put together but, typically the Higher Education Act covers a lot of things that are of great importance to the University.  Everything from funding education research to student assistance to a whole basket of potential rules and regulations.

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