The majority of four-year college students support President Bush, a new Harvard University survey reports.
According to the nationwide poll, conceived by students at Harvard’s Institute of Politics and conducted by an independent polling firm from Oct. 3 to Oct. 12, Bush’s approval rating is 61 percent among college students and 53 percent among the general public.
“There has been a perception since the sixties that colleges are left-wing bastions,” said Harvard junior John Chavez, who coordinated the student volunteer effort at the IOP. The survey indicates such beliefs are unfounded.
“Outspoken activists tend to be liberal and garner the most media coverage,” said Steve Macguidwin, president of the University of Michigan College Republicans. “The survey reveals a silent majority of Republicans at colleges.”
The survey shows that students who oppose Bush are more politically active than students who support the president.
But the survey also reveals that college students disagree with many of Bush’s policies toward Iraq. A majority of students – 56 percent – said the U.S. should begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. Nearly half, 46 percent, said they would avoid a draft if it were reinstated. Moreover, an overwhelming majority – 87 percent – said the Bush administration has been dishonest about Iraq.
“The Republican Party has done nothing specifically to appeal to the youth,” said Betsy Sykes, vice president of the IOP’s student advisory board. “The Republicans are worse than the Democrats at reaching out to the youth.”
But students are not issue-based voters, Chavez explained. The survey reports that respondents value the leadership qualities of a president more than they value a president’s stance on the issues.
“Democrats are taking the wrong angle. They need to focus on leadership qualities in trying to capture the youth vote,” Sykes said.
“We’re more isolated from the issues that others evaluate the president on,” she added. “The younger generation has felt the effects of September 11 more strongly. The youth is still rallying around the flag.”
The percentage of students who support Bush has not changed since the IOP’s spring survey, but students have moved from indecision to disapproval of Bush. This suggests campuses have become more polarized since April.
Among college students, Bush beats nonspecific Democratic and independent candidates, according to the survey. But a higher percentage of students – 18 percent – is undecided compared with the general public.
“Neither political party has college students in the bag,” Chavez said. “They are a swing bloc, and both parties would be remiss if they ignored them.”
The survey disputed the belief that college students are not politically active. More than half – 56 percent – of respondents said they would definitely vote in 2004, and another 26 percent said they would probably vote. Equal percentages, 87 percent, of college Democrats and Republicans are expected to vote, suggesting that one cannot infer voting patterns from rates of political participation.
But the logistics of voting are a problem. A majority, 79 percent, of respondents was unsure about how or where to vote.
The poll also reported that a majority of students would volunteer in political campaigns if asked to do so by the candidates.
“(Sept. 11) has spawned a new generation of politically-active students who advocate stronger foreign policy,” Macguidwin said.
At the same time, attitudinal barriers to political entry have been eliminated, Chavez said. The percentage of students who say they believe elected officials are motivated by self-interest has gone down 10 percentage points, from 74 to 64 percent. The number of students who say they believe political involvement seldom produces tangible results has declined from 51 to 34 percent.
This means the candidates need to start selling themselves to college students, Chavez said.
“The Democrats trump the Republicans on many issues that are salient to young voters,” Sykes said. “(They) need to make a connection between the warrior they support and the war they oppose,” she added. “Democrats can’t win on the terrorism issue, they need to focus on other issues.”
The survey reveals a majority of respondents volunteer for community service. “There is a very high correlation between community service and political participation,” Chavez said.
Presidential candidates Joe Lieberman and Howard Dean were the frontrunners among college Democrats polled. Dean supporters are much more likely than Lieberman supporters to volunteer in political campaigns. A plurality of Democrats was undecided.
Sykes said young people are concerned about the same issues that the general public is, but that candidates need to frame the issues in terms the youth will understand.
“The political establishment needs to start talking to the youth,” Sykes said. “If they do, we’re going to vote.”