Spring 2006 Youth Survey


April 11, 2006

In Potential 2008 Presidential Matchup, Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain in Dead Heat

Washington, DC – A new national poll by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics (IOP), located at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, finds seven out of ten of America’s college students believe that religion is somewhat or very important in their lives, but they are sharply divided – along party lines – over how strong a role religion should play in politics and government today. Despite these differences, more than half of students agree they are concerned about the moral direction of the country. While a majority believes hot-button issues like abortion policy, gay marriage and stem cell research are issues of morality, many also agree that the Government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, education policy and Iraq war policy are also questions of morality. In addition, when asked whom they would support in a potential 2008 presidential matchup between U.S. Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain, students give each forty percent (40%), with twenty percent (20%) saying they are unsure.

The poll also includes the IOP’s innovative method for assessing the political ideology of America’s college students. The eleven-question “Harvard Institute of Politics’ Political Personality Test” finds that America’s college students do not fit traditional ideological labels like liberal and conservative and that forty percent (40%) are religious and secular centrists who incorporate religious views with their political attitudes and actions. The test is available online at www.iop.harvard.edu.

“Religion is not only very important in the lives of college students today, but also religion and morality are critical to how students think about politics and form opinions on political issues,” said IOP Director Jeanne Shaheen. “The political parties and candidates should take note of the significant number of votes and key swing constituency that college students represent for the 2006 and 2008 elections.”

The survey of 1200 college students, drawn randomly from a national database of nearly 5.1 million students finds –

Religion is important in the lives of college students, but Republicans and Democrats may never agree on the role of religion in politics today. Seven in ten college students today say religion is important or very important in their lives. What’s more, a quarter of students (25%) say they have become more spiritual since entering college, as opposed to only seven percent (7%) who say they have become less spiritual. However, they are sharply divided along party lines as to religion’s role in politics: only twenty-one percent (21%) of self-identifying Democrats say they want to hear politicians talk about religion, while more than two and a half times as many Republicans (56%) say the same. Sixty-two percent (62%) of college Republicans say that religion is losing its influence on American life and by a seven to one margin believe that is a “bad thing.” Fifty-four percent (54%) of college Democrats say that religion is increasing its influence and by a two to one margin believe that is a “bad thing.”

Morality playing a strong role in students’ political views. College students believe many issues at the forefront of political debate today are closely linked to morality. Not surprisingly, a majority of students agree somewhat or strongly that hot-button issues like abortion policy (61%), stem cell research (51%), and gay marriage (50%) are questions of morality; but a full fifty percent (50%) of college students also say the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina was a question of morality. Roughly four in ten Democrats and Republicans agree education policy (45% D, 38% R) and Iraq War Policy (39% D, 44% R) are questions of morality. However, Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans (52% D, 35% R) in believing healthcare policy is a question of morality and twice as many Democrats as Republicans say the same about the minimum wage (34% D, 17% R).

Both Democrats and Republicans agree on their concern over the country’s moral direction, but students are generally optimistic about our country’s future. Fifty-four percent (54%) of college students say they somewhat agree or strongly agree that they are concerned about the moral direction of the country, up three points from a year ago. This is an issue a majority of both Democrats (57%) and Republicans (52%) agree on. Although more than four in ten (46%) college students agree that they are optimistic about the country’s future, many more young Republicans feel that way (61%) than young Democrats (37%).

College students continue to support a more multilateral U.S. foreign affairs stance and are conflicted over unilateral action to prevent nuclear weapons development, including in Iran. Nearly three out of four college students (72%) believe the United States should let other countries and the United Nations take the lead in solving international crises and conflicts, nearly identical to Spring 2005 IOP poll findings (74%). Students also struggle over the U.S. role in the development of nuclear weapons. More students say they are unsure (37%) over whether the United States should stop the development of nuclear weapons in other countries, even if it requires unilateral military action, than those who either agree (33%) or disagree (31%). An identical number (37%) are equally unsure when asked specifically about the U.S. intervening in Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.

More than seven in ten students believe the United States should withdraw some or all U.S. troops from Iraq. Sixty percent (60%) of college students believe the United States should begin to withdraw troops from Iraq, a twenty point increase from six months ago (40% - Fall 2005 IOP poll). However, only twelve percent (12%) of college students now believe the United States should withdraw all troops from Iraq - a ten point drop from Fall 2005 IOP polling (22%).

Potential 2008 Clinton-McCain presidential matchup is a dead heat on campuses. If the 2008 presidential elections were held today and the Democratic and Republican candidates for President were U.S. Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain, we would see a dead heat on college campuses. Students give each candidate forty percent (40%), while most national polls of the general public give Senator McCain a near ten point advantage. 

President Bush’s approval rating still dropping, as students continue to feel the country is on the wrong track. Only one-third (33%) of college students say they approve of the job George W. Bush is doing as President, down eight points from this past fall. Following recent trends, students also continue to feel the country is on the “wrong track” rather than headed in the right direction. Fifty-eight percent (58% - an identical number to the fall 2005 IOP poll) believe the country is on the “wrong track,” while only thirty-percent (30%) believe the country is headed in the “right direction,” down five points from October 2005.

A majority of students trust our government’s ability to correctly choose which phone calls and e-mails to monitor, but they are still generally unwilling to allow it. A majority of college students (53%) say they have a fair amount or a great deal of confidence in government’s ability to correctly tell whose phone calls and e-mails should be monitored and whose should not. However, the same percentage (53%) say they also would not be willing to allow the government to monitor Americans under suspicion to reduce the threat of terrorism, with only forty-one percent (41%) saying they would be willing. This reluctance was not evidenced in a recent poll of the general public, where sixty-eight percent (68%) of Americans say they would allow such monitoring (CBS News/NYT Poll 1/06).

Traditional party identification labels of “conservative” and “liberal” are antiquated, and don’t fully represent students. This year’s survey reveals that a full forty percent (40%) of college students think about politics in a different way, with religion and morality playing a major role. The IOP’s typology (used first in 2004 and again in 2005) segments students not only on the traditional liberal and conservative axes, but also on religious and secular axes. One in four college students (25%) can now be classified as Religious Centrist, a group which grew by four points (up from 21%) over the past year. Traditional Conservatives have increased by two points (16% from 14%) since 2005, Traditional Liberals remain largely unchanged, and Secular Centrists (now 15%) are smaller by three points.

IOP TYPOLOGY SPOTLIGHT: Religious Centrists (25% of college students). Splitting in the 2004 elections nearly evenly for President Bush and Senator Kerry, this group will likely be the critical swing vote in the 2008 elections. 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. With a large concentration of African Americans and Hispanic students, Religious Centrists support free trade, strongly support universal healthcare and are very protective of the environment.