IOP Youth Polling Update Findings


As part of Harvard’s Institute of Politics ongoing analysis of 18 to 24 year old voters dating back to 2000, the IOP has conducted a survey of N=1,031 18 to 24 year olds on issues related to the 2008 campaign for President. This project is an interim update to our Biannual Youth Survey on Politics and Public Service, which saw its 14th release issued on April 24, 2008. The interviewing period for this study was between July 28 and August 12, 2008; all interviews were conducted online by our research partner, Harris Interactive. The major objective of this study was to measure the attitudes of young voters related to election preferences and understand how they plan to engage during each of the conventions. According to the U.S. Census, there are approximately 25.5 million 18 to 24 year old citizens in the US today. In addition to this brief, full data and a topline report with methodology are available here.

Key Findings

(1) Obama maintains solid 23-point lead among likely young voters over McCain

Heading into the Democratic convention, Senator Obama holds a solid 23-percentage point lead over Senator McCain, 55% to 32% -- with 13% undecided. This lead is virtually unchanged since our last poll, which was conducted in the spring, before the Democratic nomination was settled. To put this into context, Harvard IOP polling from the 2004 election cycle showed Senator John Kerry with a 13-percentage point (52%-39%) lead among college students in the month leading up to the election. According to exit poll results, Senator Kerry won the total youth vote (18-29 year olds) in 2004, by a 9-point margin, 54%-45%.

Senator Obama’s strongest level of support comes from African-Americans (93%-3%), Democrats (88%-3%), Independents (62%-13%) and young voters from the East Coast (68%-22%). Among men he leads 53% to 34%; among women 58% to 30% -- and among Hispanics/Latinos by 12 points (49%-37%).

(2) More than 3-in-5 young voters are excited about the election; nearly half of likely voters interested in volunteering on a campaign
Overall, 62% of young voters report that they are excited (23% very excited, 39% somewhat excited) about the upcoming election, including 69% of 18 to 24 year olds currently in college. Among those not on a college campus, 59% say that they are excited about the election. In addition to the current gap in the horse race, a significant “enthusiasm” gap exists between Obama and McCain supporters on this issue. Slightly more than four-in-five (83%) young voters planning to vote for Obama tell us that they are excited about the election this fall, which is 27 percentage points higher than McCain’s supporters (56%). It should be noted that 44% of Obama supporters say they are “very excited,” while only 11% of McCain supporters say the same. In addition, 68% of all young female voters say they are excited (56% of male voters), 74% of African Americans, 64% of young Hispanic/Latino voters and 60% of young Born-Again- Christians are excited about the election this fall. In politics, excitement often translates into engagement and this is most certainly the case for both Obama and McCain supporters this year. A slight majority of Senator Obama’s supporters (51%) indicate that they were interested in volunteering (12% very interested) on the campaign and 39 percent of McCain’s supporters said the same (13% very interested). These numbers translate to hundreds of thousands of potential volunteers for both campaigns – ready and willing to engage if asked.

(3) McCain and Obama in virtual tie on readiness to be Commander-in-Chief and terrorism; Obama considered more likely to bring change, improve U.S. image abroad and improve the economy
In addition to finding solutions for the economy (39% report this as the most important issue facing the country), the situation in Iraq (15%), health care and immigration -- our previous quantitative and qualitative research tells us that young voters also seek a President who can change Washington and improve the country’s image abroad. The following table summarizes who young Americans trust more to handle each of these very important issues facing the country. Senator Obama leads significantly on macro-level issues related to image and change, moderately on pressing domestic concerns, and is virtually tied or behind Senator McCain on key issues related to the terrorism and readiness to be Commander-in- Chief.

(4) Young people tuning in to the DNC and RNC to hear about plans for the economy
Nearly two-in-five (39%) young voters indicate that they plan to follow the Democratic convention closely (10% very closely, 29% somewhat closely) and three-in-ten young people plan to follow the Republican convention closely (3% very closely, 27% somewhat closely). When asked which topic or issue they would most like each of the candidates to address, the responses were very similar: 23% reported that they would like Senator Obama to address his plans for the economy, and 24% reported that they would like Senator McCain to do the same.
Following are two representative verbatim responses to this open-ended question:

To Senator Obama:

“I would like to know what he plans to do when he becomes President to ease every family’s financial stress. My family can barely afford to live in our current situation and we are the lucky ones.”

To Senator McCain:

“What will he do (sic) to help Americans with the rising cost of everything. Food, gas, everything we need to live on is going up but our pay is staying the same. People are having to choose between eating and paying bills.”

(5) Multimedia convention experience expected
Like the Olympics, while a majority of young voters who plan to follow the DNC and RNC closely will watch them on live television, additional media platforms will also play an important role in how young people will receive information about each of the candidates and their parties. The following table summarizes the likely convention watching habits for the Democratic Convention and the Republican Convention.

In conclusion, these results continue a trend that was first established in the earliest days after 9/11 of a political and civic re-awakening among this generation, which we call Millennials. While Senator Obama has clearly tapped into this movement, it is important to note that it existed before the Obama campaign as the 2004 and 2006 elections saw significant spikes in youth voter participation.

Additionally, young voters are not a monolith. In the eight years that the IOP has conducted this research we have seen significant changes in the attitudes of this generation on a number of issues. Like other generations before them, Millennials include college students, entrepreneurs, young working families and are more diverse than any generation in American history. Their votes should not be taken for granted by one party or the other. The next edition of our biannual survey will be released in October 2008.