Spring 2006 Survey - Executive Summary

Redefining Political Attitudes and Activism:

a Poll by Harvard’s Institute of Politics

April 11, 2006
The Institute of Politics
Harvard University
79 JFK Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
(617) 495-1360


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. 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 on these issues for the past six years and, as time passes, there is increasing cause for optimism.

The generation that has come of voting age in a post-September 11 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, almost ten million strong, is now part of a chorus of voices that will have a say in the future of our nation.

During the 2004 campaign, voter turnout and participation on college campuses and among young people generally, increased dramatically. Over 11.6 million votes were cast by 18 to 24 year olds during the last presidential election, which is three million more than in 2000 and the highest number since 1972 when 18 to 20 year olds were first given the right to vote. Like the generation schooled by Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, today’s college students also have come of age in a time of great historical importance. Our Spring 2006 Harvard study of college student attitudes finds a group of young adults that looks at the world in terms of religion and morality and has a distinctly multilateral view of foreign policy.

Working with a group of Harvard undergraduates and the staff of the Institute of Politics, prime group, a bipartisan polling and consulting firm, conducted 1,200 telephone interviews with college students from a nationwide list of 5.1 million undergraduates from March 13-27, 2006.

The objectives of the survey, the 11th in an ongoing series, were to track the attitudes of college students concerning:

  • Current events, including foreign policy and the U.S. role in the world and major issues facing the nation;
  • Religion and morality in politics;
  • The emerging political groups and typology of students.

The margin of error for this survey is ±2.8 percent at the 95 percent confidence level but is higher for subgroups.

The Political Mood and View of President Bush is Shaped Primarily by Iraq; Foreign Policy Weighs Heavily on the Minds of College Students

Direction of the Country

Three years after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the start of the Iraq War, college students, like most Americans, are frustrated with President Bush, the direction of the country and progress in Iraq. These attitudes are clearly reflected across the campuses of America. Only one-third (33%) of students currently approve of the job President Bush is doing, a record low for his presidency and a 14 percentage point drop from last year. Additionally, less than one-in-three (30%) of those polled believe the country is headed in the right direction today while forty-one percent (41%) believed it was in the spring of 2005.

The War in Iraq weighs heavily on the minds of college students, with thirty-nine percent (39%) citing it as their number one concern. In contrast, only twenty percent (20%) of the general population cites the War in Iraq as its topmost concern. While the political mood may be dark for many today, by a two to one margin students are optimistic about the future and continue to find new ways to mix their social and political worlds. Of the seventy-six percent (76%) of college students who have a facebook.com account, fourteen percent (14%) have used it to promote a political candidate, event or idea—a number that is likely to rise as we head into mid-term elections and the 2008 Presidential cycle.

White House 2008

Looking ahead to the 2008 election, forty percent (40%) of students currently support Senator Clinton and forty percent (40%) support Senator McCain for President. Most polls in the United States show a 10 percentage point lead for Senator McCain. A significant number of the undecided voters (20%) can be classified as independent-minded Religious Centrists, who in pre-election 2004 polling, split their support between President Bush and Senator Kerry at forty-seven percent (47%) each. Yet again, the Religious Centrists will be an important swing vote in 2008 and political campaigns should begin to think about how to reach out to them. (See the “Beyond Red & Blue” section of this report).

A Post-9/11 World-view

With a great deal of their world-view coming into focus post-September 11 and the start of the second Iraq War, it is not surprising that college students have strong views on U.S. foreign policy and America’s place in the world. Markedly different from older Americans, seventy-two percent (72%) of students believe that the United Nations, and not the United States, ought to take the lead in solving international conflicts and crises. On the surface, preference for the United Nations appears driven by a perception of the United Nations’ role in the world and not necessarily by a lack of confidence in the United States. Of those who prefer the United Nations over the United States in international conflicts, seventy-nine percent (79%) indicate that their view is “more about the role of the United Nations” and not “a lack of confidence in the United States.”

Clear multilateralists, students are not supportive of the Bush Doctrine in theory or practice. Only thirty-five percent (35%) agree with the theoretical idea of the United States working to spread freedom and democracy. On the practical side, seventy-two percent (72%) of students believe that the United States should begin to withdraw some (60%) or all of its troops (12%) from Iraq.

The foreign policy beliefs of college students, regardless of political party or support for the United Nations, are also characterized by preventing genocide and maintaining respect for the United States abroad. Sixty-six percent (66%) of college students agree that the United States should commit troops to prevent genocide or ethnic cleansing and sixty-three percent (63%) think that it is important for the United States to be respected by the rest of the world. The multilateral beliefs of college students are infused with an ethical trend that believes that the United States has a role to play in the world and that respect by the rest of the world is important.

Conflicted on Confronting Iran

When considering the pressing issue of the development of nuclear weapons in Iran, college students are divided. Thirty-two percent (32%) of students believe that the United States should stop the development of nuclear weapons in Iran, even if it requires unilateral military action. Yet, thirty-seven percent (37%) are not sure and twenty-nine percent (29%) oppose unilateral military action against Iran. However, students remain more cautious than adults, as fifty percent (50%) of adults agree that the United States should use whatever means necessary to halt Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Religion and Morality Are Becoming Critical Elements of the Political Debate

Importance of Religion

Students today come to college with a solid core of beliefs about politics, political involvement, community service and religion. A wide majority of college students (70%) says that religion plays an important role in their lives. One in four (25%) report that they have become more spiritual since entering college while just seven percent (7%) say they have become less spiritual. In terms of the religious make-up on college campuses, twenty-five percent (25%) of students are Protestant, twenty-four percent (24%) are Catholic, eighteen percent (18%) are Fundamentalist/Evangelical Christian, three percent (3%) are Jewish, one percent (1%) are Muslim, thirteen percent (13%) are some other religion and sixteen percent (16%) have no religious preference.

A Partisan Divide

A significant majority of college students agree that religion plays an important role in their lives, but there is clear disagreement about the role that religion should play in politics and government. For example, more than half of all Republicans (56%), but only twenty-one percent (21%) of Democrats, want to hear politicians talk openly about their religion. To better understand the role of religion in American life, the IOP mirrored a series of questions first asked by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and found significant differences between the two parties:

Sixty-two (62%) of college Republicans say that religion is losing its influence on American life and by a 7 to 1 margin believe that is “a bad thing;” but

Fifty-four percent (54%) of college Democrats say that religion is increasing its influence on American life and by more than a 2 to 1 margin believe that is “a bad thing.”

Further, when asked whether religious values should play a more important role in government, over twice as many Republicans (38%) as Democrats (16%) agreed with this statement. While Democrats and Republicans may be unable to come to agree on the role of religion in politics, when addressing issues of morality a convergence of beliefs emerges.

Traditional Issues in a Moral Context

Most students, regardless of party affiliation, come together in their concern for the moral direction of the United States. For the third year in a row, a majority of students agree with the statement, “I am concerned about the moral direction of the country.” This concern comes from all segments of the campus population: Fifty-seven percent (57%) of Democrats are concerned, fifty-two percent (52%) of Republicans, fifty percent (50%) of Whites, seventy-four percent (74%) of African Americans, forty-nine percent (49%) of men and fifty-seven percent (57%) of women. Likely meaning very different things to different groups, moral issues are the new political battleground.

Throughout the course of the 2004 campaign for President, the candidates often spoke about religion, values and moral issues. John Kerry mentioned the word “values” 28 times in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention and President Bush has often spoken about morals, faith and religious values during his presidency.

It is not surprising that, when asked, college students identify three issues-- abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage-- as moral issues. However, what is surprising is their inclusion of traditional policy issues as moral issues either on par with or just below the “Big Three” moral issues of the day. One half (50%) of all college students, and a larger number of African Americans, believe that the government response to Hurricane Katrina is an issue of morality, along with abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage. Not far behind, approximately 40 percent of Democrats and Republicans agree that education policy and Iraq war policy are “issues of morality.”

However, a distinction emerges from this point. Among Democrats, the environment (44%), affirmative action (37%) and the minimum wage (34%) are seen as moral issues. On these issues Republicans are significantly less likely to evaluate them in a moral context and see no other policy issues on the same moral level as Hurricane Katrina and the “Big Three.”

% who agree that issue is a question of moralityRepublicans tend to favor a more religious view of the world. Democrats are more likely to consider a number of “traditional” policy issues to be of moral importance. While this survey does not ask why individuals consider issues to be moral or attempt to define morality, the fact that college students are thinking about political issues in this manner is significant, not only because it represents the wider religious nature of this generation of college students, but also because it signifies a new political language that politicians must recognize as they reach out to voters and consider legislation.

Beyond Red and Blue, A New Political Landscape The Four New Groups of the Political Landscape

Citizens, college students and the general public are classified politically by their identification with a particular political party. Political parties generally assume that they have their “base;” have little chance in persuading voters from the other party; and that the independents, those somewhere in the middle, are the ones they must focus on to win an election. They are only partially correct. Political groupings among college students are much more complicated than “blue” and “red.” Party identification is misleading, antiquated and only tells a small part about the beliefs of an individual. The political beliefs of college students can be better understood using a classification of four groups. For the third consecutive year, the IOP has conducted its revolutionary analysis of the political beliefs of college students. Using a list of 11 questions and statistical analysis, we are able to classify college students into groups that better reflect political beliefs than political affiliations.

College students cluster into four distinct groups with only sixty percent (60%) accounting for Traditional Liberals (44%) and Traditional Conservatives (16%).

In this analysis, the “middle” is comprised of two in five voters called Religious Centrists (25%) and Secular Centrists (15%). These groupings reveal quite a bit about the makeup of the traditional party classification, for example:

  • Republicans: 34% are Traditional Conservatives; 30% are Religious Centrists; 20% Secular Centrists and 16% are Traditional Liberals.
  • Democrats: 59% are Traditional Liberals; 24% are Religious Centrists; 9% are Secular Centrists and 7% are Traditional Conservatives.
  • Independents: 50% are Traditional Liberals; 21% are Religious Centrists; 16% are Secular Centrists and 13% are Traditional Conservatives.

Traditional political groupings are far from homogenous. However, a better understanding of the coherent ideological make up of these groups can lead to better messaging, targeting and, ultimately, more election victories. Importance of the Religious Center This analysis foreshadows the 2008 general election campaign for President where Religious Centrists, nearly a quarter of the student vote, will be the critical swing vote. Splitting in 2004 nearly evenly for President Bush and Senator Kerry, this group will likely be the most influential group in American politics for years to come.

Optimistic about the future and very likely to participate in elections, the Religious Centrists’ views are characterized by a deep concern over the moral direction of the country that is likely influenced by opposition to Roe v. Wade and belief that homosexuality is immoral. With a very large concentration of African American and Hispanic students, the Religious Centrists support solid free trade, strongly support universal healthcare and are very protective of the environment. When Religious Centrists watch the nightly news, they are more likely than other college students to believe that recent immigration is good and that the government response to Hurricane Katrina is a serious question of morality.

Traditionals and Secular Centerists

Traditional Liberals are more likely to be female than male, strongly believe that universal healthcare is a right for all and that protecting the environment is as important as protecting jobs. They support Roe v. Wade and do not find homosexuality to be morally wrong. On current events, they are more supportive of immigration, against unilateral intervention generally, but are conflicted about intervening in Iran to stop the development of nuclear weapons. Traditional Conservatives are more likely male than female and often from upper income families.

They are confident in the direction of the country, optimistic about the future and believe that the country is on the right track. Supportive of President Bush, they are more supportive of the doctrine of pre-emption than most college students.

Traditional Conservatives are comfortable voting for a candidate who speaks about his or her religious beliefs and think that religious values should play a more important role in government. They would like to see the Supreme Court establish a new precedent that restricts abortion.

Least likely to vote, the Secular Centrists are also more likely to be male than female. They are optimistic about the future and do not factor religion into their view of the world. As such, they are against religious values playing a more important role in government. They also do not find abortion or homosexuality to be morally wrong. As they consider President Bush’s policies, they are more supportive of pre-emption than most students and are willing to allow government agencies to monitor telephone calls and e-mails of Americans that the government is suspicious of.

Ten Things Politicians Should Know About Students

  1. The Iraq War and U.S. foreign policy are more important and relevant to students than older Americans.
  2. Students reject the Bush Doctrine and are strongly in favor of a multilateral approach to foreign affairs.
  3. Students are one of the more religious and spiritual groups in American politics today—but most are wary to mix religion with politics.
  4. The moral direction of the country is of great concern to students—especially for African Americans.
  5. Democrats should not cede “issues of morality” to Republicans and Republicans should not focus solely on the “Big Three.” (see below)
  6. While most students agree that abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage (Big Three) are issues of morality, the list also includes current issues like the government response to Hurricane Katrina and social issues like healthcare, education and the environment.
  7. Young Republicans are nearly twice as optimistic about our country as young Democrats.
  8. Facebook.com and social networking websites are immensely popular with college students and are ripe for political organizing.
  9. “Democrat”, “Republican” and “Independent” are outdated labels and tell us very little about political ideology —the battle for the White House will be among Religious Centrists.
  10. There are millions of students; they care; they are involved, and they vote.

The Survey Group

Jeanne Shaheen
Director, Institute of Politics

Catherine McLaughlin
Executive Director, Institute of Politics

David King
Faculty Advisor, Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard, Associate Director and Director of Research, Institute of Politics

John Della Volpe
Partner, Prime Group

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


Beiting Cheng ’09

Katie Demers ’08

Marina Fisher ’09

Drew Fleeter ’09

Steve Johnston ’09

Brittney Moraski ’09

Brent Speed ’09

Matthew Valji ’08

Paloma Zepeda ’06

Harvard’s Institute of Politics (IOP) was established in 1966 as a memorial to President Kennedy. The IOP’s mission is to unite and engage students, particularly undergraduates, with academics, politicians, activists and, policy-makers on a nonpartisan basis and to stimulate and nurture their interest in public service and leadership. The Institute strives to promote greater understanding and cooperation between the academic world and the world of politics and public affairs. The Institute has been conducting national political polls of America’s college students for five years.