Fall 2004 Executive Summary

Coming of Age—the Political Awakening of a Generation: A Poll by Harvard’s Institute of Politics

October 21, 2004


Executive Report

Harvard University’s Institute of Politics (IOP) working with the polling firm of Schneiders/ Della Volpe/ Schulman conducted n=1,202 telephone interviews with college undergraduates from October 7, 2004 through October 13, 2004. The objectives were to look in depth into the 2004 election and the issues driving college students’ votes, to gauge the level of interest and excitement among students about the 2004 election, and find out the exact methods by which college undergraduates vote. The survey also tracked the attitudes of college undergraduates related to politics and community service from earlier IOP studies.

The findings, while largely focused on the 2004 election, are part of a larger set of data dating back to the April of 2000 survey, and offer a comprehensive view into the minds of current undergraduates, and how the events of the past four years have changed the way that this generation of college students views politics.

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. 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/pdfs/2000_topline.pdf). 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 four years on these issues, and as election 2004 draws closer, there is cause for excitement.

The generation that have 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 Fall 2004 Harvard study of college student attitudes finds a political awakening on campuses around the country. The college vote will arrive in 2004, whether people are ready for them or not. Key findings include:

I. Election 2004


Kerry Leads Bush in head-to-head match-up: Lead grows to 52-39.

Senator John Kerry’s lead over President Bush among college students remains strong. His lead, which stood at 10-points in March, has grown to 13-points. Kerry’s growing lead continues the trend of undecided voters moving exclusively into the Kerry camp. Bush’s vote-share has remained constant over the past year, 39 percent, while an unnamed democratic candidate (and later, Kerry) has increased his vote share from 33 percent to 52 percent. Nader’s vote share is in line with the population as a whole, dropping four-points to less than 1 percent.

Note: Fall 2004 Numbers include those who have already voted (3percent of the sample). Compared to the general population, college students favor Kerry by a much wider margin. During the period the poll was in the field, the race was a statistical dead-heat.



Kerry leads Bush by 17 points among likely college voters in swing states

Likely voters (voters who are both certain they are registered and will definitely be voting) favor Kerry by margin of 55 to 38 in 14 key swing states (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Tennessee). Voters in these swing states are slightly more likely to be paying attention to the election than those in non-swing states. Nader’s vote share in swing states among college students is less than one percent.


As the election draws closer, students are beginning to identify with parties

For the first time since 2000, students identifying themselves as Democrats outnumber both those identifying themselves as Independent or Republican. Since 2000, those identifying themselves as Independent has outnumbered partisans by a considerable margin. As the election nears, students seem to be more willing to classify themselves as a member of a party.



Female students more likely to support Kerry; male voters evenly divided.

Kerry’s lead among college students emerges almost entirely from his support among women voters. Among likely female voters, Kerry leads Bush 58-34, but the race is almost even among likely male voters, 47-46. A gender gap exists in the population as a whole as well. In 2000, Bush won men by 12 points; Gore won women by 11. While Kerry’s lead among women is significant, it is equally important that Bush is not beating Kerry by a solid margin among young, male voters. Kerry winning half this demographic has largely to do with his overall success in the head-to-head race.


Like the general population, students are divided on candidate attributes; favor Bush in some areas, Kerry in others.

Even though students prefer Kerry by 13-points, their views on which candidate has the attributes that would make a good president are more divided. Students feel Kerry “understands the problems of people like you,” “shares your values,” “has an appealing personality,” and is “better qualified to be Commander in Chief.” By contrast, students feel Bush is a “strong leader,” “will make the country safer and more secure,” and feel he “takes a clear stand on issues.” They score about the same on “honest and trustworthy.”


More students feel the country is headed on wrong track than in the right direction.

For the first time since the IOP began polling, more students feel the country is headed off on the wrong track than in the right direction. While students’ views toward the state of affairs in the country are on a whole more positive than the country as a whole, the numbers still are part of a larger trend of slippage in support for the Bush administration and its policies. Students evenly divided on approval/ disapproval of President Bush 51 percent of students approve of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as President, while 48 percent disapprove. These numbers are consistent with the numbers from the IOP’s April 2004 poll.


Support for the War in Iraq continues to slip among college students

Support for having gone to war with Iraq has reached an all-time low among college students, and for the first time, more students oppose having gone to war than support it. Support among the general population has slipped as well, but a majority of Americans still supports having gone to war with Iraq.



The Economy ranks as number one issue in determining vote for president—Terrorism, War in Iraq, Moral values of high priority as well.


College students are concerned with the same set of issues as the general population.

42 percent of students rate the economy as the most important or second most important issue when determining their vote for president. 39 percent say the situation in Iraq is most important or second most important, followed by 33 percent saying terrorism and homeland security, 29 percent saying moral values, and 27 percent saying education. 17 percent of students 23 and over rate health care as the most important issue in determining their vote.



II. They’re Coming...


Registration and Turnout 2004

College students are excited about the 2004 election. Shattering the myth that all young people don’t vote, college students appear poised to vote in the upcoming election. Heeding the advise from previous IOP surveys, both major parties and media organizations have focused on the importance of the college vote as part of the larger 18-29 year old demographic.


84 percent of college students report they will “definitely be voting” in the November election: potential turnout over 50 percent.

The number of students who report they will “definitely be voting” in November has reached a new high-water mark. 84 percent of college students, up from 62 percent six months ago report they will definitely be voting in the upcoming election, or have already voted. This number dwarfs the 50 percent who, in the spring of 2000 reported they would definitely be voting.

The number of people who report they will be voting in an election is notoriously overreported. In general, about 60 percent of those who report they will definitely be voting turn out to the polls. Bearing this in mind, this still means more than half of college students plan on voting in the upcoming election. This is a substantial increase over the 42 percent who voted in 2000. Even these adjusted numbers do represent a significant increase, and compare favorably to the numbers of the general population in recent polls. Still, when you take only students who are certain they are registered to vote and say they will be “definitely be voting,” 72 percent of college students emerge as “likely voters.”

When looking at the percentage of registered voters who say they will “definitely be voting,” the numbers for college students compares favorably to the population as a whole (from recent surveys by ABC News/ Washington Post).



87 percent of students report being registered to vote, a 13 point increase in the past 6 months.

Eighty-seven percent of college students report that they are registered to vote; 89 percent of those are “certain” they are registered. Like the percentage of voters who will “definitely be voting,” this represents the highest number the IOP has seen. This figure, however, should be interpreted cautiously. It is exceptionally unlikely that 87 percent of college students are actually registered to vote, and selfreports of registration are notoriously inflated for all age groups across all surveys. What is important, however, is the overall rise in self-reported registration.

A majority of students (54 percent) were encouraged to vote by “an individual or group”. While colleges may not be in full compliance with the Higher Education Act of 1998, [see SURVEY OF COLLEGE AND UNIVERSITY VOTER REGISTRATION AND MOBILIZATION EFFORTS http://www.iop.harvard.edu/pdfs/chronicle_poll_2004_summary.pdf] 43 percent of all students were encouraged by their college or a group at their college to register to vote.


42 percent of students plan to vote via absentee ballot—40 percent plan to vote at a polling place on Election Day.

Even though 84 percent of students will be voting in the state where they attend college, 42 percent plan to vote via absentee ballot. Of those who plan to vote absentee, 35 percent have received no help. As students are finding out, the absentee voting process varies widely from state-to-state, and can be confusing at times. To help make it easier for students to vote absentee the Institute of Politics has assembled a state-by-state guide to the absentee voting process. It can be found at www.iop.harvard.edu.


Level of interest in the election high across the board.

Students are interested in the election, and care about the results. Ninety-one percent care a good deal about who wins the presidential election, 75 percent have discussed the election in the past 24 hours, 82 percent are talking about politics or current events at least once a week, and 21 percent of college students have volunteered for a presidential campaign this year. In addition, 87 percent say they are following the campaign closely. Taken as a whole, these numbers show a trend toward overall engagement in the 2004 election.

In October 2002, the IOP Survey asked, “if a friend or peer suggested volunteering on a political campaign -- assuming you support the candidate and the campaign’s platform and issues -- how likely would you be to volunteer?” In October 2002, 24 percent of students said they would be very likely to volunteer. Twenty-one percent of students (almost three million in total) volunteered for a presidential campaign in the 2004 election cycle.


III. Motivation


Why College Students are interested in Politics, and Election 2004


Students believe the election matters—and that have a say in it.

Eighty-two percent of students disagree with the statement, “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does,” and 93 percent of students disagree with the statement, “it really doesn’t matter to me who the President is.” Taken together these numbers show that students feel they can make a difference through voting, and that they care enough to want to make a difference.


Barriers to participation on the decline: Politics viewed as relevant, producing tangible results

The IOP has tracked barriers to political participation since its’ first survey in 2000. When we began, the picture was bleak. Students did not feel politics had tangible results, and nearly one-third of students disagreed with the statement “politics is relevant to my life right now.” Views toward politicians have also become favorable in the past four years. Taking these numbers together, the picture is more optimistic, and the attitudinal barriers that characterized college students in 2000 seem to have disappeared.



Registration and mobilization efforts are reaching students; many students contacted while on college campuses

Fifty-six percent of students were encouraged in some way to register to vote. Of those, 72 percent were encouraged by someone on their college campus. In addition to registration efforts reaching students, students are being encouraged to vote. Sixty-two percent of all students surveyed report being encouraged to vote. Still, the vast majority of students, 90 percent, are unaware that changing their place of voter-registration can affect some loans, scholarship, and state-based grants.


A vast majority of students, 85 percent, are registered to vote in the state where they attend college.

Even though 42 percent of students plan on voting via absentee ballot, only 15 percent of students attend college in a state other than the state in which they plan to vote. The remainder, 27 percent of the total population of college students, is registered to vote in state but attend college in a place other than their registered polling location.



When the IOP set out in 2000 to probe the views of college students, the key finding was that a disconnect between views toward public service and politics existed. Students were motivated to volunteer in their community, but did not view political engagement as a way to effect change. As election 2004 nears, the motivation to get involved in politics that seemed so lacking in 2000 is omnipresent in 2004.

The younger siblings of Generation X and the children of the Baby Boomers seem to be coming to the realization that their actions and political involvement have a direct effect on their country and their future. If the excitement and interest translates into students going to the polls on November 2nd, a new generation of active voters will be born, the shape of the electorate will be different, and a new, vibrant, vital voice will be added to the political dialogue.

Strides have been made to engage this generation in the political process, but it is important to not let this excitement die on November 3rd. Instead, it is important to realize that certain barriers to college students voting still exist, and it is our responsibility to do what we can to break down these barriers. This generation of voters is coming, and we must be ready for them when they arrive.

Special thanks to our student working group who was instrumental in producing this document and our findings, as well as to Professor Richard Niemi of the University of Rochester and Assistant Professor Mike Hamner of Georgetown University for their assistance in this survey’s development.


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

Richard Niemi: Professor, University of Rochester

Mike Hamner: Assistant Professor, Georgetown University

Jonathan Chavez ’05: Survey Chair


Krister Anderson ’07

Mark Beatty ‘06

Paul Davis ’07

Caitlin Monahan ’06

Leslie Pope ’06

Elise Stefanik ‘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 four years.