Campus Kids: The New Swing Voter”
Working with members of Harvard University's Institute of Politics, Schneiders / Della Volpe / Schulman conducted n=1,201 telephone interviews with college undergraduates from April 22 to April 30, 2003. The objectives of the survey were to track the attitudes of college undergraduates related to politics and public service from earlier IOP studies, and to measure opinions of college undergraduates regarding:
- The 2004 presidential election, their political beliefs and ideology;
- Current events, the War in Iraq and other issues; and
- Media habits, sources of news and information;
The margin of sampling error for this survey is ± 2.8 percent at the 95 percent confidence level, but is higher for subgroups.
It is our belief that that this survey breaks significant new ground on a number of fronts and should mark the beginning of a new dialogue between political figures and college students. Specifically, there are five key findings of particular note in the short-term:
1. Campus Kids, the Political Offspring of “Soccer Moms” and “Office Park Dads,” Could be Key Swing Group of 2004
From “soccer moms” to “office park dads,” each election year a new demographic group of voters is anointed “kingmaker” by the political media and pundits.
By virtue of three (which we believe are false) assumptions: (1) they don’t vote, (2) they’re not engaged, and (3) they’re all Democrats – college students have always been left out of this equation. Our recent survey indicates that “Campus Kids,” the political offspring of “soccer moms” and “office park dads,” could be – and should be -- one of this election cycle’s key voting groups.
False Assumption 1: They Don’t Vote -- While only 32 percent of all 18 to 24 year olds voted in the 2000 election for President – our survey indicates that among 18 to 24 year olds who are enrolled in college – close to 3 in 5 (59%) report that they will “definitely be voting” in the 2004 general election for president. An additional 27 percent report that they “probably will vote,” with the rest indicating that their chances of voting are 50-50, or that they would not be voting.
With close to 9.5 million 18 to 24 year olds enrolled in a college or university – the impact students could have on the popular vote nationally and in key states is significant if properly targeted and mobilized by one of the presidential campaigns.
False Assumption 2: They’re Not Engaged – Over the course of the last three years of conducting surveys among college undergraduates, it has become clear that college students care about their communities, and since 9/11 and the War in Iraq are becoming more engaged in the political process.
In our Fall 2002, survey students’ commitment to community service remained strong (61% volunteered for community service in last year), while the percentage of those who think politics is relevant to their lives has increased, as has the number of students who participated in a political rally or demonstration (from 20 percent in the Fall of 2002 to 35 percent this Spring).
Additionally, more than four out of five (85%) students report following current events – with 26% indicating that they follow current events “very closely.”
False Assumption 3: They’re All Democrats
Although more college students are Democrats than Republicans – the gap between the two major parties is closing and, as illustrated in the chart below, a plurality of students do not consider themselves a member of either party.
2. Students’ Votes are Up for Grabs in ’04 – Democrats Should Not Count on Them and Republicans Should Not Count Them Out
While Democratic campaigns might have counted on the votes of large numbers of college students in the past and Republicans might have ignored them – it would be wise for each campaign in ’04 to target messages and outreach to this constituency. The pre-election data we have collected indicates that although college students are (1) not as supportive of the President as the nation is as a whole and (2) are not certain that they would vote to re-elect him for another four years – they approve of the job he is doing and believe the country is headed in the right direction.
Taken as a whole the data indicates that college students are currently split in their preferences for president and could fall into either the Democratic or Republican column – depending on which candidate makes a greater effort to reach out to them and speak to the issues that concern them most.
Currently, 34 percent of college students indicate that they will vote to re- elect President Bush and 32 percent indicate that they will support the Democratic candidate. Eight percent favor an “Independent” candidate, and 26 percent are unsure at this time.
Although college students are slightly more pessimistic than the nation as a whole, a solid majority, 58 percent, believe things are headed in the right direction, 31 percent say things are off on the wrong track. And 61 percent in our survey approve of the job George W. Bush is doing as President while 32 percent disapprove.
3. Unlike Previous Generations, College Students Today Say They Lean to the Left on Social Issues but to the Right on Economic Policy
Another indication that college students today define the “Swing Voter” is their desire to not be placed into any one ideological category.
Overall, 36 percent (26% very liberal) of students consider themselves liberal thinkers on most political issues; while nearly the same number – 32 percent (25% very conservative) -- consider themselves conservatives. Twenty-nine percent are self-described moderates. As the graph below indicates, students are slightly more conservative when it comes to economic issues and more liberal when it comes to social issues (defined by students as education, health care, affirmative action, health care, among others).
When college students were asked for the one problem in the country that concerned them most – 37 percent indicated issues related to the wars in Iraq and on terrorism, 18 percent reported the economy, 9 percent foreign policy and 6 percent education.
Six months ago in October, only 7 percent indicated that the economy was their number one concern.
Two other indications that point to the importance of the economy as an issue for college students in the next campaign are: 74 percent of all students believe that finding a permanent job will be “difficult” (15% very difficult, 59% somewhat difficult) upon graduation;
and a plurality (45%) say that the economy will be the most important factor they consider when deciding which candidate to support for President.
On other issues:
- 54 percent support affirmative action programs for minorities and women for admission to colleges and universities;
- 51 percent support a cut in the federal income tax, but only 18 percent support an income tax cut if it would result in a “reduction in social programs such as healthcare, education, or welfare.”
- 61 percent of college student oppose legalizing marijuana (a Time/CNN survey found that 59% of the general population oppose legalization);
- 26 percent believe abortion should be legal under any circumstances, 53 percent in some circumstances – and 20 percent believe abortion should be illegal in all circumstances (Gallup reports that 23 percent of the general population think abortion should be legal under any circumstances, 57 percent in some circumstances, and 19 percent illegal in all circumstances);
- and on the issue of civil liberties – 81 percent agree that the government should take steps to prevent additional acts of terrorism but not if those steps would affect some of your basic civil liberties such as personal privacy or free speech (62% of the general population agrees with this view).
4. Hawks Outnumber Doves 2:1 -- College Students Supportive of War in Iraq and the New Bush Doctrine
A likely departure from the days in which “soccer moms” and “office park dads” attended college – today there are more “hawks” on college campuses than “doves.”
At the time the survey was taken, support for the War in Iraq outpaced opposition by more than 2:1. Perhaps most strikingly hard-core support (37% strongly support) outnumbered hard-core opposition (14% strongly opposed) by nearly 3:1.
Continuing the hawkish trend on campuses, 59 percent agree with the change in U.S. military policy from one in which the U.S. responds to military actions by hostile countries -- to one in which the U.S. initiates military action when there is a threat of hostility.
In keeping with the emerging pattern of college students creating a unique political voice of their own, student opinion on the role of the United Nations in rebuilding Iraq is divergent with that of the nation as a whole.
5. “Swing Voting” Parents Most Responsible for Shaping Political Beliefs of Campus Kids; TV, Newspapers Major Source of Current Events Information
Asked for the two things in their lives that are most responsible for shaping their political beliefs – members of their inner circle such as parents (30%), family (17%), friends (14%) and educators (18%) rank at the top of the list – with media/news (15%) following a distant second.
Similar to other Americans, college students get their current events news from traditional sources, such as television (74%) and newspapers (49%). Less than three in ten (29%) report getting information on current events on- line.