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Presidential Politics and the Student Vote

December 6, 2007

Presidential poll fatigue already set in? Just one more, promise. This from the people at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, who twice a year survey 18- to 24-year-olds across the country about a set of political and social issues.

On the presidential nomination question, Barack Obama and Rudolph Giuliani come out ahead, according to the “Fall 2007 Youth Survey on Politics and Public Service.” That should come as no surprise to anyone who has tracked the former New York mayor's national poll numbers or seen the Illinois senator appear on a college campus.

Among likely young Democratic voters, Obama (38 percent) leads U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York (33 percent) by five percentage points, and both candidates are well ahead of former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina (7 percent). On college campuses, Obama's margin is even wider. He's at 44 percent to Clinton's 23 percent. (Polling stopped a month ago.) Clinton edges Obama among those surveyed who are not currently at a four-year college and those who have never enrolled at any college.

While Democratic voters are more likely to support a given candidate now than when they were asked in the spring, Republican voters indicated that they are undecided (30 percent) more often than they did the last time around (28 percent). Giuliani led the Republican field at 26 percent, with Sen. John McCain of Arizona (15 percent) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (6 percent) trailing. The survey doesn't note the difference between college and non-college voters on the Republican side, because there was no statistical significance there, said John Della Volpe, poling director for the Institute of Politics.

Roughly 35 percent of those surveyed said they consider themselves Democrats, with not quite half of that group saying they consider themselves to be "strong Democrats." Of the 25 percent who indicated they would vote for a Republican, slightly fewer classified themselves the same way. According to the survey, 36 percent of likely Republican voters said they were dissatisfied with their party's nominees, compared with 18 percent of Democratic voters who agreed. Forty percent of respondents considered themselves independents.

The Institute of Politics survey, which this fall included responses from more than 2,500 people, is designed by Harvard students and conducted by Harris Interactive via the Internet rather than over the telephone, Della Volpe said, because many people in the 18-24 demographic don't have access to a traditional land line. As the report explains, because a major purpose of the research is to compare differences between college and non-college students, pollsters oversampled college students in order to amass data for further investigation. As a result, roughly half of those surveyed are four-year college students, and half are not currently enrolled at a four-year college. (It's important to note that the "non-college" category also includes two-year-college students and people who have already earned a college degree.) That split doesn't reflect the actual balance of young adults in the United States.

In this fall's sample, 41 percent of people said they would "definitely" vote in a presidential primary or caucus, and 61 percent say they would "definitely" vote in the general election. College students said they would be voting in higher numbers than their counterparts did.

In the 2004 presidential election, the 18- to 21-year-old voter turnout was the highest it had been in 32 years. About 42 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, compared with roughly 30 percent four years earlier. Some pointed out that the college or college-aged vote could be down in at least one state, Iowa, this year, because the early January caucus date coincides with winter break at state institutions.

James Leach, a former Republican Congressman from Iowa and current director of the Institute of Politics, said the early caucus date shouldn't affect the overall voter turnout but could hurt the college vote.

“In some ways, the more important part of the survey is the issues,” Leach said. "In particular, the idea that there may be room for a third political party is a stunning aspect of this report."

He referred to data showing that more than one-third of the young people surveyed say the two parties are "doing such a poor job that a third major party is needed." Only 30 percent said that Democrats and Republicans are "adequately representing the American people." Liberals were more likely to say a third party is needed than were conservatives. And while more than 70 percent of the entire cohort said elected officials don't have the same priorities that they do, more than 6 in 10 said getting involved in politics is "honorable."

On the question of political activity, roughly 35 percent of those surveyed said they would be "somewhat" or "very" likely to volunteer in some way if asked by a campaign. About 60 percent of people said they would join Facebook or another social networking site group for a particular candidate. But fewer than 20 percent of respondents indicated a willingness to donate money through Web sites or download campaign ring tones.

“While new media is emerging, old ones are here to stay,” said Marina Fisher, a junior at Harvard and one of the student co-chairs of the poll. “The message is be mindful of more traditional ways of engaging young people.”

When asked about most pressing issues, respondents still list the Iraq war as No. 1, though the gap between it and the No. 2, health care, is shrinking. Della Volpe said college students were more likely to indicate an interest in the war and foreign policy, while people in the non-college category more often put down economy, health care and other domestic issues.

Below is a sample of questions asked in the survey. (Again, "non-college" doesn't mean a person hasn't earned a college degree; it means someone not currently at a four-year institution.

Are You Registered to Vote?

  Total College Non-College
Yes 69% 77% 67%
No 27% 20% 30%
Not Sure 3% 3% 4%

When It Comes To Most Political Issues, What's Your Leaning?

  Total College Non-college
Liberal 32% 34% 31%
Moderate-leaning liberal 14% 18% 13%
Moderate 21% 17% 23%
Moderate-leaning conservative 12% 12% 12%
Conservative 21% 19% 22%

Agree with Statement: The Institutions and Groups Listed Below Have Been "Very"
or "Somewhat" Influential in Determining My Level of Political Engagement

  Total College Non-College
High School 32% 29% 33%
College 50% 51% 48%
Friends 51% 54% 50%
Religious institutions 31% 32% 31%
Family 61% 64% 31%
Media 40% 42% 39%

Have You Ever Done Any of the Following?

  Total College Non-College
Volunteered on a political campaign for a candidate or an issue 12% 13% 12%
Attended a political rally or demonstration 21% 26% 19%
Donated money to a political campaign or cause 15% 15% 14%
Written an e-mail or letter advocating for a political position or opinion 28% 30% 27%
Signed an online petition 50% 58% 48%
Contributed to an online discussion or blog advocating for a political position or opinion 23% 25% 22%

Source: Harvard University Institute of Politics

 

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