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Displeased, Not Disaffected

November 2, 2006

They’ve been labeled politically apathetic, but college-aged students are planning to vote in record numbers on November 7, according to a poll from Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.

Thirty-two percent of 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed in the biannual poll on politics and public service said they “definitely will be voting" in the midterm elections, and three in four said the likelihood that they would cast ballots was at least 50 percent.  

Young voter turnout has hovered around 21 percent in the last four midterm elections, an institute official said. Since the voting age became 18, the best non-presidential election turnout was 1982, when roughly 27 percent of this demographic group participated.

For the first time in six years of polling, the institute sought out 18- to 24-year-olds who are not attending a college or university. About half of the 2,546 people surveyed between October 4 and 16 were enrolled in an institution.  Among all voters in the age group, recent college graduates were the most likely to say they "definitely" planned to vote, with the least likely being people who never attended college or are in high school. Undergraduates and graduate students were the subgroups most likely to indicate being "politically engaged or politically active."

A record young voter turnout  would come despite poll findings that young people remain skeptical of their leaders and many aspects of the political process. While trust grew after the September 11 terrorist attacks, it has waned since then, most likely due to the government's response to Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq, according to the report.

"[September 11] has had a transformative effect on our generation," said Krister  Anderson, the survey co-chair and a Harvard senior.

Sixty-five percent of those surveyed indicated that 9/11 has had an effect on their views toward government, with about half saying that they are now more cynical. Six in 10 said the country is on "the wrong track." Three in four surveyed said politics has become too partisan. And when asked, "Whom do you trust more to handle the war on Iraq: Democrats or Republicans?" 43 percent answered "neither," compared with 32 percent for Democrats and 25 percent for Republicans. 

More than four in 10 people said the most pressing issues facing the country are the war in Iraq, terrorism and national security. When given four plans for dealing with the war, nearly half of those polled said they favored either withdrawing troops immediately or within the next year. One in three favored withdrawal, but not until Iraqi forces have proven the ability to take control. Five percent said more troops should be sent.

President Bush, who earned "C" and "D" grades from those surveyed on his handling of seven issues -- including education, health care and the economy -- received his lowest average grade (a D+) on the war. He has a 32 percent approval rating among this age group, according to the poll.

John Della Volpe, director of polling for the institute, said that in past years a lack of trust in leadership had translated into a lack of civic engagement and low voting numbers among young people. But this group has maintained an interest in staying informed and involved, he said. Seventy percent of those polled – and 84 percent of college graduates -- said politics is relevant to their lives. In all, 60 percent said getting into politics is "honorable."

“I’m encouraged because we’re seeing a trend that we saw start before the 2004 elections -- increased engagement,” said Jeanne Shaheen, director of the institute, which is part of the John F. Kennedy School of Government. “Hopefully this will translate into better turnout at the polls.”

Fifty-two percent of those polled who said they would “definitely vote” on November 7 favored a Congress controlled by Democrats. Twenty-nine percent from this subgroup said they favored Republicans. A plurality (39 percent) of those surveyed identified themselves as being “independents,” compared with 35 percent Democrats and 27 percent Republicans.

Jason Mattera, a spokesman with Young America’s Foundation, whose motto is "the Conservative movement starts here,"  said he isn’t surprised to see a high expected voter turnout because he has seen the level of college activism increase over the last few years.

Though the poll indicates that a majority of likely young voters favor a party switch in Congress, he said young Republicans who feel strongly about politics historically make it to the polls at a high rate, which tends to tip races. Mattera added that "left-dominated campuses" play a role in swaying students' opinions about the political state of affairs.  “I wouldn’t take this as an indictment of the current administration or a vote against President Bush,” he said. 

Ben Adler, editor of campusprogress.org, a publication of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said the most telling poll numbers are those about the war.  "Five percent want more troops in Iraq -- that is striking, but I can't say I’m surprised by it," he said. "Young people are the ones who are bearing the brunt of the occupation."

Adler said wartime tends to mobilize young people to vote -- even when there is no mandatory draft. He said while people in the 18- to 24-year-old demographic generally don't support the way the war has been waged, they still support American troops.

According to the poll, the military is the most revered of all American institutions -- trusted "all" or "most" of the time 55 percent by those surveyed. Half said that about the Supreme Court, 38 percent about the United Nations, 31 percent about the President, 29 percent about Congress and 12 percent about the media.

The poll also found that the rate of volunteerism is on the rise, particularly among undergraduate and graduate students.

“There’s been an attitudinal change,” said David King, the institute's director of research and a Harvard lecturer in public policy. “We no longer think of a 'me' generation like the Baby Boomers, but a 'we' generation that is involved in community service and campaigns.”   

King added that campaigns still undervalue 18- to 24-year-old voters and don't take advantage of the best ways to reach them -- through social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, rather than through calls to their land lines (which only about half have, according to the report).  

The poll also showed that:

  • 72 percent of those in the 18- to 24-year-old demographic said they are registered to vote (82 percent of those in college; 69 percent non-college.)
  • 60 percent said they "follow national politics closely."
  • 23 percent watch cable TV news regularly; 16 percent watch "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" regularly.
  • 70 percent said religion is at least "somewhat important" in their lives.

 

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