Harvard Institute of Politics’ Survey of Student Attitudes: The Global Generation
April 19, 2005
Working with a group of Harvard undergraduates and the staff of the Institute of Politics, Schneiders/ Della Volpe/ Schulman, a bipartisan, professional polling firm, conducted 1,206 telephone interviews with college undergraduates from March 21 to April 4, 2005. The objectives of the survey were to track the attitudes of college undergraduates related to politics from earlier IOP studies, to continue studying a new ideology index that accurately reflects undergraduates’ political stances, and to measure opinions of college undergraduates regarding:
- Interest and Participation in Election 2004
- Social Security
- American Foreign Policy
- America’s Role in the World
The margin of error for this survey is ±2.8 percent at the 95 percent confidence level, but is higher for subgroups.
In 2000, undergraduates at the Institute of Politics noticed a problem on the Harvard campus. In the midst of a hotly contested election, political activity on campus seemed to be just the opposite: students showed little motivation for getting involved in the presidential campaign, and memberships in political organizations were far outpaced by memberships in community service organizations. In April of 2000, the IOP released the initial findings of a nationwide survey of undergraduates. The findings were troubling (results are available at http://www.iop.harvard.edu/research_polling.html ). There seemed to be a deep, attitudinal distrust of the political system, and politics and participation in government was not viewed as an effective way to change America for the better. The IOP has continued to poll undergraduates for the past five years on these issues, and as time passes, there is increasing cause for excitement.
The generation that has come of voting age in a post-September 11th world reports that political participation is vital to their lives, and they are strongly committed to having their voices heard. College students are engaged at rates higher than in any of our previous surveys. This demographic, nine million strong are now part of a chorus of voices that will have a say in the future of our nation. Today’s college students have come of age in a time of great historical importance. The spring 2005 Harvard study of college student attitudes finds a political awakening on campuses around the country and strong opinions about the issues that face the nation.
I. Election 2004: College Students are Involved and Motivated for the Future
COLLEGE STUDENTS DID VOTE IN 2004
Contrary to popular belief, college students DID vote in large numbers in 2004. “Based on the national exit poll conducted by Edison/Mitofsky and vote tallies from the Associated Press, CIRCLE estimates that the turnout of 18-24 year-olds was approximately 42.3%.”1 This is a 5.8% increasing in turnout from 2000. In reality, 18-24 year old turnout was even higher than 42 percent because a full third (33 percent) of college students report voting absentee and are not counted in exit poll data. Also important to note is that 18-24 year olds made up nearly 10 percent of all voters in 2004, not an insignificant percentage. This important age cohort favored Kerry over Bush by 56-43 percent (the only cohort to do so) which aligned closely with the IOP’s October 2004 survey that found college students favoring Kerry over Bush by 52-39 percent.
ELECTION 2004 GALVANIZED COLLEGE STUDENTS
Not only did students vote in the 2004 Presidential elections, but a full quarter donated time, money, or some combination of the two. This impressive level of commitment shows that students cared deeply about the outcome of the election and were willing to contribute in multiple ways. More importantly, 67 percent of college students reported that after the last presidential election they are more likely to get involved in politics in the future. Students are thinking about politics, willing to get involved, and care about the implications of elections.
II. College Students Care about Social Security
The hallmark of President Bush’s domestic agenda, Social Security reform is an issue that will have direct effects on the lives of college students. A year ago when we asked students to report the issue that concerned them most, Social Security did not even register. When we asked this year, Social Security jumped from obscurity to their second most important issue, right behind the war. A full 70 percent of students are worried that Social Security will not be able to provide benefits for them when they retire and 63 percent think that it will not be able to provide benefits for their parents. College students are seriously concerned about the future of Social Security and over half believe that the system needs reform.
STUDENTS ARE SUPPORTIVE OF PRIVATE ACCOUNTS, BUT REMAIN CAUTIOUS
Students are significantly more supportive of private investment accounts than the general public but, like the general population, want to be sure that their Social Security benefits are guaranteed. This mix of opinions presents a difficult burden for policy makers who are ostensibly trying to save Social Security for this generation. While college students are more supportive of private accounts and personal investment than their parents are, they are still wary of a Social Security system that could leave them without retirement benefits.
III. Worldview of College Students at Odds with The Current Administration
The administration of President George W. Bush has set a distinctive foreign policy after September 11, 2001. This policy, along with other changes in government, has focused on protecting the U.S. from international terrorist threats. Key components have included the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, supporting pre-emptive strikes, global anti-terror operations, and the recent commitment of the U.S. to spreading freedom and democracy across the world. Yet, College students are at odds with major points of the policy of the current administration.
FOR THE FIRST TIME A MAJORITY OF STUDENTS NOW OPPOSE THE US HAVING GONE TO WAR WITH IRAQ
Once supportive of the centerpiece of current U.S. Foreign Policy, college students now are more against the decision to go to war with Iraq than in favor of it. This is consistent with nationwide support for the war, which has been gradually slipping, even with the positive progress Iraq is making towards democracy.
TWO-THIRDS (67 PERCENT) OF COLLEGE STUDENTS BELIEVE IT WILL BE 10 YEARS BEFORE IRAQ IS A FULLY FUNCTIONING DEMOCRACY. AN ADDITIONAL 12 PERCENT DO NOT BELIEVE DEMOCRACY WILL EVER HAPPEN.
President Bush has made it clear that the United States is dedicated to democracy in Iraq. As he proclaimed in his 2005 State of the Union Address, “Our commitment remains firm and unchanging. We are standing for the freedom of our Iraqi friends, and freedom in Iraq will make America safer for generations to come.” College Students, however, are deeply skeptical that democracy in Iraq is an attainable goal in the near future, if ever.
ONLY 36 PERCENT OF COLLEGE STUDENTS BELIEVE THAT THE US SHOULD WORK TO SPREAD FREEDOM AND DEMOCRACY ACROSS THE WORLD.
President Bush stated in his second Inaugural Address that, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” However, college students do not support such an overarching vision. They are further skeptical about a policy of spreading freedom and democracy if it involves significant troop losses or taxpayer dollars, with support dropping to 13 and 20 percent respectively.
SEVENTY-FOUR PERCENT OF UNDERGRADS BELIEVE THAT THE U.S. SHOULD LET OTHER COUNTRIES AND THE UN TAKE THE LEAD IN SOLVING INTERNATIONAL CRISES AND CONFLICTS.
College students are much more likely to defer to multilateral action led by other nations and the UN to solve international problems. This view is in sharp contrast with the wider U.S. population, who when last asked this question in 2002, split, with 48 percent believing the UN should take the lead as compared to 46 percent who thought the US should take the lead.
IV. College Students See Challenges and Responsibilities for the U.S. Abroad Challenges
As college students survey the world, they are pragmatic about the resolution of difficult issues that the U.S. is involved in solving. They see a long-term commitment to Iraq and the possibility of further military action or terrorist attacks in the near future. A realistic view of the world underlies college students’ understanding of global affairs.
I. THE WAR IN IRAQ AND MILITARY ACTION ABROAD
Students consider the war in Iraq to be the most pressing challenge the U.S. faces today. When asked what issue concerns them most, college students overwhelmingly responded the war in Iraq. College students are divided on whether the U.S. should be in Iraq to begin with concerned about how long the U.S. will there, and at what cost. Only 51 percent of students will tolerate further American casualties in Iraq so long as it continues to make progress towards democracy. When coupled with the dissatisfaction for having gone to war with Iraq in the first place, as well as a large portion of college students believing that it will take at least 10 years for Iraq to develop into a true democracy, Iraq is the primary issue of apprehension.
Along similar lines, college students think that the U.S. will be involved in further military action abroad in the coming years. Fifty-seven percent believe the U.S. will invade another country in the next five years and 80 percent believe an invasion will occur in the next 10 years. When asked what country they thought the U.S. would invade, most respondents said Iran followed by North Korea and Syria.
II. PEACE AND DEMOCRACY IN THE MIDDLE EAST ARE OF GREAT CONCERN
On the issues of democracy in the Middle East and peace between Israel and Palestine, college students are skeptical of short term success. Thirty-seven percent believe that we will not witness democracy in the Middle East for 20 years or more, while an additional 15 percent believe that we will never witness democracy in the region. With respect to Israel and Palestine, a third of students (34 percent) believe that peace will occur in 20 years or more while 26 percent believe that peace will never occur. While these are admittedly complicated issues, the prospects for their successful resolution are distant in the eyes of college students.
III. CONCERN OVER TERRORISM AND MILITARY ACTION ABROAD IS PREVALENT
Despite U.S. actions to prevent another terrorist attack, college students remain concerned about the possibility of a terrorist attack in the U.S. or an attack with a nuclear weapon. Within the next 5 years:
- Nearly half (49 percent) of college students believe that another large-scale terrorist attack will occur in the United States.
- Ten percent of students believe that a nuclear weapon will be used against the United States.
Within the next 10 years:
- Over three quarters (76 percent) of college students believe that another large-scale terrorist attach will occur.
- Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of college students believe that a nuclear weapon will be used against the United States.
I. THE U.S. SHOULD WORK FOR HUMANITARIAN CAUSES ACROSS THE GLOBE
Large numbers of students believe that the United States should be the largest contributor of humanitarian aid and should commit troops to prevent acts of genocide or ethnic cleansing (61 and 64 percent respectively). They believe that the U.S. has a responsibility to use its resources and power to prevent cases that threaten the interests of humanity.
II. THE U.S. SHOULD STRIVE TO BE RESPECTED IN THE WORLD AND WORK WITH OTHER NATIONS TO ADDRESS INTERNATIONAL CRISES AND CONFLICTS
Sixty-four percent of college students believe that it is important for the U.S. to be respected by the rest of the world. When coupled with their strong support for the UN and other countries taking the lead on international crises as well as their commitment to humanitarian objectives, college students see the U.S. was working with the rest of the world multilaterally to address the problems it faces.
III. ABOUT A THIRD (36 PERCENT) CONDITIONALLY SUPPORT THE U.S. WORKING TO SPREAD FREEDOM AND DEMOCRACY ACROSS THE WORLD
Thirty-six percent of college students are committed to a policy of spreading freedom and democracy. However, this sizeable chunk of college students dwindled when asked whether they would be willing to commit significant U.S. casualties or taxpayer dollars to such a policy. Support rapidly falls to 13 and 20 percent respectively.
V. The Political Ideology of College Students
A year ago, the IOP’s spring 2004 survey developed a groundbreaking new way to categorize the ideologies of college students. We found that college students’ beliefs do not break down on a traditional liberal-conservative axis. Rather, their political ideology should be measured on both a liberal-conservative and a religious-secular axis. A strong sense of religious values has become intertwined with the traditionally secular world of politics. Nearly 40 percent of young people have incorporated this sense into their political views and actions and can no longer be classified with traditional labels.
Through statistical analysis, we were able to sort college students into four ideological groups that accurately reflect the way in which they view political issues: Traditional Liberals, Traditional Conservatives, Religious Centrists, and Secular Centrists. A year later these groups remain distinct, thus confirming our original analysis.
Eleven agree/disagree statements were used to determine where students fit on this spectrum. The answers to these questions were compiled and students were then sorted into four groups based on similarities they shared with other members of those groups. The eleven questions are:
- The best way to increase economic growth and create jobs is to cut taxes.
- Our country’s goal in trade policy should be to eliminate all barriers to trade and employment so that we have a truly global economy.
- Basic health insurance is a right for all people, and if someone has no means of paying for it, the government should provide it.
- Qualified minorities should be given special preferences in hiring and education.
- Religious values should play a more important role in government.
- In today’s world, it is sometimes necessary to attack potentially hostile countries, rather than waiting until we are attacked to respond.
- Protecting the environment should be as high a priority for government as protecting jobs.
- Homosexual relationships between consenting adults are morally wrong.
- If parents had more freedom to choose where they could send their children to school, the education system in this country would be much better.
- I am concerned about the moral direction of the country.
- Recent immigration into this country has done more good than harm.
Political Ideologies of America’s College Students
CHARACTERISTICS OF EACH GROUP
Traditional liberals have the largest percentage of both Democrats (48%) and women (61%). Like Secular Centrists, they do not believe that religious values should play a more important role in politics. They are socially liberal on issues such as health insurance, abortion, and homosexual relationships. Not surprisingly, traditional liberals are most dissatisfied with the Bush administration, current US foreign policy, and the war in Iraq. In line with this view, 86% strongly believe that the UN should take the lead in solving international crises and conflicts.
- Make up 43% of the Population. This is up 11 points from spring 2004.
- 61% are women
- Voted overwhelmingly for Kerry in the last election (76%)
- 48% Democrat, 43% Independent, 7% Republican
- Only 22% think the country is on the right track (lowest of any group)
- 21% are concerned about the moral direction of the country Social Policy Beliefs
- 51% strongly believe that basic health insurance is a right (most of any group)
- 65% strongly believe that there should be Social Security guarantees (most of any group)
- Only 1% believe that homosexual relationships are morally wrong (least of any group)
- 0% strongly believe that religious values should play a more important role in politics
- 36% strongly believe that the protecting the environment is as important as protecting jobs
Foreign Policy Beliefs
- 86% strongly believe that the UN should take the lead in solving international crises (most of any group)
- Only 20% strongly support the war and only 40% would tolerate further casualties in Iraq
- Only 8% believe that the US should work to spread freedom and democracy (least/group)
- Only 2% believe in preemptive strikes (least of any group)
Traditional Conservatives are most supportive of the Bush administration and its foreign policy such as the war in Iraq and preemptive strikes. Not surprisingly, 81% voted for Bush in 2004. Socially, they believe that homosexual relationships are morally wrong and that abortion should be banned. Economically, they believe in tax cuts and some degree of trade barriers.
Traditional conservatives believe the country is on the right track, yet are worried about the moral direction of the country, and believe that religious values should play a more important role in government. 63% of Traditional Conservatives label themselves as Born Again Christians.
Social Policy Beliefs
Economic Policy Beliefs
Foreign Policy Beliefs
- Make up 14% of the College Population (down 2% from 2004)
- 52% are male
- 63% are Born Again Christians
- Voted Overwhelmingly for Bush (81%)
- 64% Republican, 8% Democrat, 25% Independent
- 63% believe the country is on the right track
- 42% are concerned about the moral direction of the country (most of any group)
- 38% believe that religious values should play a more important role in politics (most of any group)
- 48% believe abortion should be illegal in all circumstances (most of any group)
- Only 20% strongly believe that basic health insurance is a right
- 75% strongly believe that homosexual relationships between adults are morally wrong (most of any group)
- Only 6% strongly believe that all barriers to trade should be eliminated (least of any group)
- 79% strongly support having gone with war with Iraq (most of any group)
- 18% believe in preemptive strikes
- 72% would tolerate further casualties in Iraq assuming progress (most of any group)
Religious Centrists hold moderate views, but are strongly influenced by religion. They split their political affiliations between Republicans, Democrats, and Independents and evenly divided their votes between Kerry and Bush in 2004. This group has the highest concentration of African Americans and Latinos as well as a high percentage of Born Again Christians. Religious Centrists are more concerned than any other group about the moral direction of the country and a comparatively large percentage believes that religious values should play a more important role in government. They hold slightly conservative views on social issues such as homosexual relationships and abortion, yet are more liberal than any other group when it comes to school choice, affirmative action, and eliminating trade barriers. They also fall squarely in the middle on foreign policy issues such as the war in Iraq except for spreading democracy.
- Make up 21% of the College Population (down 2% from 2004)
- Highest Concentration of African Americans (22%) and Latinos (9%)
- 43% are Born Again Christians
- Split Party Identification: 35% Democrat, 32% Republican, 31% Independent
- Evenly supported Bush (47%) and Kerry (47%) in Election 2004
- 38% are concerned about the moral direction of the country (most of any group)
Social and Economic Policy Beliefs
- 18% strongly believe that religious values should play a more important role in government
- 42% strongly believe that health insurance is a basic right
- 32% strongly believe that homosexual relationships are morally wrong
- 27% believe that abortion should always be illegal
- 29% strongly believe in school choice (most of any group)
- 14% strongly believe that recent immigration has done more harm than good (most of any group)
- 12% strongly believe in affirmative action (most of any groups)
- 20% strongly believe in eliminating all trade barriers (most of any group)
- 51% strongly believe in social security guarantees
Foreign Policy Beliefs
- 72% believe that the UN should take the lead in solving international crises
- 46% support the war in Iraq
- 49% would tolerate further casualties in Iraq assuming progress
Secular Centrists lean conservative, yet religion does not appear to factor into their ideology. They are more optimistic about both the country being on the right track as well as the moral direction of the country than any other group. In line with this, they do not believe that religious values should play a more important role in government. Secular Centrists do not support health insurance as a right, affirmative action, or social security guarantees. They do support the war in Iraq. However, they differ from the Republicans in that they do not believe homosexual relationships are morally wrong or that abortion should be illegal.
- 18% of the Population (down 11 points from spring 2004 – shifted to Trad. Liberals)
- Split Party ID: 15% Democrat, 47% Republican, 35% Independent
- 60% male
- 59% supported Bush and 29% supported Kerry in Election 2004
- 67% think the country is on the right track (most of any group)
- Only 11% are concerned about the moral direction of the country (least of any group)
- Only 1% believe that religious values should play a more important role in government
Social Policy Beliefs
- Only 15% strongly believe that basic health insurance is a right (least of any group)
- Only 16% consider the environment as high a priority as jobs (least of any group)
- Only 12% believe that homosexual relationships are morally wrong
- 0% strongly believe in Affirmative Action (least of any group)
- 42% believe in Social Security guarantees
- 10% strongly believe that abortion should always be illegal
Foreign Policy Beliefs
- 68% support the war in Iraq
- 66% would tolerate further casualties in Iraq assuming progress
- 21% strongly believe that the US should work to spread democracy
VI. Message to the Parties
TO THE DEMOCRATS…
While a majority of college students voted for Kerry in 2004 (52 percent) and a third identify as Democrats (33 percent), college students have historically been and are still a swing group. Over a third of college students (36 percent) consistently identify themselves as Independents and as little as a year and a half ago, more students identified themselves as Republicans than as Democrats. Of voters, 41 percent also say that they would be willing to vote for a presidential candidate of another party in 2008.
Current support for the Democratic Party stems from issues such as opposition to the war in Iraq, support of international cooperation, support of basic health insurance as a right, environmental protection, and support of homosexual rights. However, values matter to college students. By defining its values, laying out a road map for Social Security, and continuing to support international organizations such as the UN, the Democrats will have a good chance of maintaining their support among college students.
TO THE REPUBLICANS…
Though college students currently lean toward the Democratic Party, it has not always been this way. As recently as October of 2003, more college students identified as Republicans (31 percent) than as Democrats (27 percent). There is no reason why the Republican Party can not win back the support of America’s college population.
College students already support Republican ideas and proposals on a number of fronts. When it comes to Social Security, college students support the idea of private accounts more than the general population. Nearly three quarters believe that abortion should be restricted in some way.
They do not support Affirmative Action and they do believe in school choice. The domestic policy positions of the Republicans seemingly better align with college students. However, the Republicans have been hurt by their positions on foreign policy, which lack strong support among college students. If they want to regain their control of college campuses, Republicans should emphasize their domestic policy positions and pursue a more multilateral approach to foreign policy.
Survey Working Group:
Phillip Sharp: Director of the Institute of Politics
Catherine McLaughlin: Executive Director of the Institute of Politics
David King: Faculty Advisor, Associate Professor of Public Policy at Harvard and Director of Research, Institute of Politics
John Della Volpe: Partner, Schneiders/ Della Volpe/ Schulman
Esten Perez: Director of Communications, Institute of Politics
Jennifer Phillips: Director of National Programs, Institute of Politics
Caitlin Monahan ’06: Survey Co-Chair
Krister Anderson ‘07: Survey Co-Chair
Jon Chavez ’05
Aram Demirjian ’08
Elena Lalli ’06
Nick Melvoin ‘08
Leslie Pope ’06
Paloma Zepeda ‘06
Harvard’s Institute of Politics was established in 1966 with an endowment from the John F. Kennedy Library to inspire undergraduate students to enter careers in politics and public service, and to promote greater understanding and cooperation between the academic community and the political world. The Institute has been conducting national political polls of America’s college students for five years.