Spring 2008 Survey - Executive Summary


Eight years after our first national survey during the Spring of 2000 which came on the heels ofthe lowest national turnout for a presidential election in more than 50 years, we sought to understand the drivers behind political engagement and civic participation of a new generation. We found that while more than half of college students were engaged in some form of community service, far fewer were engaged in politics -or even voting.

Through the attitudinal and opinion data that we have collected over the course of fourteen in-depth editions of the Harvard University Institute of Politics’ Survey on Politics and Public Service we have seen dramatic changes in theway young Americans think about, relate to and engage in politics. More importantly we have seen record turnout by this generation during the 2008 primary season.

With the central mission of the Institute of Politics being to engage and inspire young Americans in the memory of John F. Kennedy and his legacy, we are particularly pleased that the underlying shifts in civic participation that we noted in 2002 are not a one-time phenomenon but instead represent the civic reawakening of a new generation.

For example, in the last few months of the primary season, the youth vote (18-29) quadrupled in Tennessee, and approximately tripled in primary and caucus contests in Iowa, Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas. 1 Compared to our survey in the Spring of 2004 -- the year in which turnout by young voters 18 to 24 increased by 31 percent -- excitement and interest in the campaign is significantly more intense.

With two razor-thin national elections in eight years, the global significance of the issues at stake, a new sense of the meaning and importance of politics after September 11, 2001 and the fact that several campaigns are targeting young people through the use of Web 2.0 and social networking technology all indications are that the 29.5 million 18 to 24 year olds in America are prepared to further extend their two-cycle trend (‘04, ‘06) of increased participation in November.

The interviewing period for this survey ofn=2,452 18 to 24 year-olds was March 11 to April 1, 2008. For most of the time the survey was in the field, the major political news centered around Governor Elliot Spitzer’s resignation. Other news of note during this time period includes the collapse of Bear Stearns and unrest and protest regarding Tibet. The Reverend Jeremiah Wright videos broke into the news on March 14, 2008. Other than the Mississippi primary which was held on the first day of interviewing, no other primary or caucus was held during the interviewing period.

The IOP poll was conducted online by our research partner Harris Interactive. IOP Polling Director John Della Volpe supervised the survey group. Marina Fisher (‘09) and Jonathan Gould (’10) co-chaired the student working group.

As always, the IOP survey group would like to thank IOP Director, James A. Leach and Executive Director Catherine McLaughlin for their insight and support over the course of this and all IOP projects.



Demographic and Political Profile

For this survey we completed n=1,230 online interviews with current undergraduates and n=1,222 online interviews with 18 to 24 year-olds who are not currently enrolled in a four-year college and then weighted these segments and target populations so that the final results and totals are representative of the overall 18 to 24 year-old population sampled (N=2,452).

Demographic profile:

  • 51 percent male, 49 percent female;
  • 42 percent between 18 and 20 years olds, 58 percent between 21 and 24 years old;
  • 62 percent White, 17 percent Hispanic, 14 percent Black/African-American;
  • 21 percent are Catholic, 15 percent Protestant, 11 percent Fundamental/ Evangelical, 3 percent Jewish, 2 percent Mormon, one percent Muslim, 12 percent another religion and 25 percent no religious preference;
  • 37 percent say that religion is a very
    important part of their life;
  • 45 percent expect that religion will play a more important part of their life as they get older;
  • 9 percent are married;
  • 89 percent own a cell phone, 43 percent have a landline and 4 percent have VOIP telephone service.

Current educational status:

16 percent of the sample are in high school, 2 percent in trade/vocational school, 8 percent in a 2-year junior or community college, 27 percent in a four-year college or university, 6 percent in graduate school, business school or professional school, and 38 percent are not enrolled in any school;


  • 73 percent of college students attend a public institution, 27 percent a private one;
  • 48 percent of students attend a college in an urban or city area, 31 percent in a suburb and 21 percent in a small town;
  • 31 percent of those in college live at home with parents, 30 percent in a college dormitory, 28 percent in an apartment.

Political and ideological profile:

  • 76 percent say they are registered to vote (increase of 7 points since November);
  • 60 percent of college students have seen voter registration materials around their school (increase of 15 points since November);
  • 64 percent say they will vote in the 2008 general election;
  • 40 percent consider themselves to be
    politically engaged or active;
  • 40 percent consider themselves Democrats, 25 percent Republicans and 35 percent Independent;
  • 31 percent are liberal, 15 percent lean liberal, 19 percent are moderate, 21 percent are conservative and 14 percent lean conservative.



Interest, Engagement and Preference for President


Interest and Engagement Growing 62 to 73 percent.

As the long primary season begins to wind down, all indications from our survey of N=2,452 18 to 24 year olds are that they are preparing to vote in November in significant, if not, record numbers -- further extending the trend of increased participation that began in 2004 and extended to the 2006 mid-term elections. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of eligible young voters (72% of college students and 61% of those not in college) indicate that they will participate in the general election, which is an increase of three percentage points (3%) since our November 2007 survey.

Notably, every measure of political engagement has increased since our last survey, strongly indicating that young Americans are following the debate and ready to participate in November. Young Americans who consider themselves to be politically engaged or active increased 5 percentage points, from 35 percent to 40 percent. Nearly three in four (73%) consider voting to be a civic duty, 70 percent say that they have been following the campaign for president closely -- and a majority (56%) of 18-24 year olds said that if the campaign that they supported provided an opportunity to volunteer in some way, they would be “very” (12%) or “somewhat interested” (44%).

Compared to this point in the calendar during the 2004 campaign cycle, which saw a 31 percent increase in youth participation compared to 2000, the percentage of college students who say that they are definitely voting has increased 10 percentage points (62% to 72%) and the percentage of college students who are following the campaign closely increased 11 points, from While much attention has been focused on the role that Senator Obama’s campaign has had on energizing the youth vote -- most indications from this survey and others conducted by IOP Polling Director John Della Volpe are that participation in November transcends any one candidate or idea.

“Every person's vote counts in this country. My vote alone will not make a difference but it is the voice of the whole that matters and the only way Ican be part of that is to vote.”

-Female, 23, College

Approximately a third (32%) of 18 to 24 year oldswho plan to vote in November tell us that theyare voting because it is their “right and/or responsibility,” 14 percent are voting to have “theirsay,” 13 percent are voting “for a new direction,” 11 percent are voting because they know that “every vote counts” and 10 percent are voting because they “care who the next President is.”


Obama Dominates the Youth Vote

In our March 2007 and November 2007 surveys, Senator Obama held slight leads over Senator Clinton among 18-24 year old primary voters, while Senator Clinton maintained solid leads in most 18+ national polls during the same timeframe. In November 2007, Obama led Clinton 38 percent to 33 percent, and in March he led her, 35 percent to 29 percent.

When 18 to 24 year olds who plan to vote for a Democrat in November (n=807) were asked which candidate they prefer to be the party nominee -- 70 percent chose Barack Obama and 30 percent chose Hillary Clinton.

Obama Vs. Clinton

With a preference of more than 2:1 it is not surprising that a solid majority of every major subgroup that we measured preferred Obama, except the small group of married Democrats who support Clinton, 54 to 46 percent.

When young Democrats were asked in an open-ended question why they support Obama or Clinton, a plurality (25%) of Obama voters indicated that “change” was the primary reason behind their vote, followed by “character” (16%), “agree with him on the issues” (12%), “hope and unity” (10%) and prefer “him to Clinton“ (10%).

“The way he's running his campaign. He's building a grassroots campaign that's supported from the bottom up in all 50 states, rather than getting donations from corporations and lobbyists and only campaigning in the big states. Actions speak louder than words.”

-24, Male, College “I believe out of all the politicians today he is by far the most honest. While he may not be the most experienced, he is charismatic and can give this country something to believe in which I think is something that we desperately need.”

-19, Female, College

For Clinton voters, “experience” (43%) was the primary factor behind their vote, followed by “agree with her policy ideas” (21%) and “she’s a woman” (11%).

“Don't get me wrong, I admire Obama for his sense of bringing greatly needed change to this wrecked country. However, with the vast number of issues plaguing our country, we need a candidate with experience who knows how to maneuver in the political realm.”

-Male, 19, Non-college

“Because she has put years into political Issues. And she has a remarkable way of being in tune with world issues. Her knowledge of the world and this country are profound and unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

-Male, 24, Non-College Male


Matching Up with Senator McCain

The strong preference that young Americans have for Senator Obama is further illustrated when each of the Democratic campaigns are matched again Senator McCain.

Among 18 to 24 year olds, Senator Obama bests Senator McCain by 21 points, 53 percent to 32 percent -- while Senator Clinton beats Senator McCain by five, 44 percent to 39 percent. With Ralph Nader in the mix, Obama maintains his 21 point lead and beats McCain, 50 percent to 29 percent -- with 4 percent for Nader; Clinton beats McCain, 41 to 34 -- with 7 percent for Nader.


In 2004, when Senator Kerry narrowly lost the election to President George W. Bush, he led among college students 48 to 38 percent (5% for Nader) at this stage in the campaign; among college students now, Obama leads McCain by nearly three times that number (54% to 28%) -- Clinton leads among college students by four points (41%-37%).

Although Senator Clinton’s base vote is smaller than Senator Obama’s, those who plan to vote for her seem as committed as Senator Obama’s. For example, of those who say they would “definitely vote” for Senator Clinton in November against Senator McCain, 63 percent report that they were interesting in volunteering on her campaign if asked; 65 percent of Senator Obama’s supporters say the same; whereas 54 percent of Senator McCain’s base say they would be interested in volunteering on his campaign.

The following table compares the performance of the two Democratic campaigns in a hypothetical three-way race with Senator John McCain and Ralph Nader.




The Issues that Matter

Economy Surpasses Iraq as Top Issue

For the first time since we began asking the question in 2002, the poll shows that the economy is the most important national issue in the eyes of young Americans between the ages of 18 and 24. Barely on the horizon in our November 2007 survey, the economy is now the top concern for 30 percent of those who responded to our open-ended question. The war in Iraq was mentioned by 20 percent as the top issue, followed by health care (9%), social issues (6%), environment (5%), education (3%) and foreign policy (3%). The chart below highlights the changes between the Fall and Spring surveys.

Economy: Very Important and Highly Relevant

With 70 percent of college students indicating that they think it will be difficult for students in their class to find a job after graduation (up from 60% in Spring 2006), there is little doubt that the economy is an issue that is highly relevant to young voters. To probe deeper into this and other top issues that have been discussed during the primary season, the IOP polled young people on 10 issues and asked two questions: First, how important was each issue when deciding who to support in November; and second, how personally relevant was each one to you. Ranging from general issues like “foreign policy” to specific ones such as the “outsourcing of jobs,” this exercise again resulted in the economy being far and away the most important and relevant issue at this point in the campaign.

The following table summarizes this battery of questions and illustrates that although the economy is number one in the minds of young people, candidates who connect to personally relevant issues such as 1) cost of tuition -- which 84 percent of college students find relevant and 61 percent of those not in college find relevant, and 2) the environment -- which 66 percent of college students and 60 percent of non-college 18 to 24 year olds find relevant -- are likely to develop a rapport, trust and potentially a vote from young America


A Look at Immigration

Immigration, while trailing behind the economy, Iraq and health care in terms of top of mind resonance, is clearly a very important topic and will be a key issue in the presidential campaign. For this reason, the students in our IOP survey group chose to focus on this issue in some detail -- finding that while this generation of young Americans believes generally in amnesty and the notion that immigration is a core American value, limits must be in place to prevent illegal immigrants from becoming a burden on governmental resources.

Perhaps most important to this debate moving forward, approximately a quarter (24%) of

young Americans that we polled seem unsure in their opinions on this important topic -- and therefore could tip the scales in this debate as more information is presented to them.

The subgroups within the youth population that are more likely to favor the amnesty program defined above include:

  • Democrats (56% support, 23% oppose);
  • Those from the Western states (50%
    support, 30% oppose);
  • Women (51% support, 27% oppose);
  • Hispanics (63% support, 13% oppose); and
  • Asian Americans (51% support, 19%


2 Net Importance (% indicate issue is important minus % indicate issue is not important); Net Relevance (% indicate issue is personally relevant minus % indicate issue is not personally relevant); Total (Net Importance plus Net Relevance)

Segments of the cohort that do not support amnesty, or where levels of opposition are higher than other groups, include:

  • Republicans (35% support, 46% oppose);
  • Mid-westerners (42% support, 37%
    oppose); and
  • Whites (43% support, 38% oppose)

Beyond the specifics surrounding amnesty, by more than a 5:1 margin (64% agree, 13% disagree), young Americans believe that “allowing immigration is a core American value,” and by approximately 2:1 margins they believe that “immigrants strengthen our country by providing a key labor source” (49% agree, 26% disagree) and “immigrants strengthen our country by increasing its cultural diversity” (45% agree, 27% disagree).

While the concept of immigration works for most young Americans, the reality of providing governmental assistance to millions of new Americans also sets in, as nearly half (49%) of 18 to 24 year olds agree with the statement that “immigrants burden American schools, government facilities and other similar institutions by failing to learn English.”

The youngest cohort of American voters draw a line and delineate between specific services that illegal immigrants ought to be entitled to (e.g., access to emergency medical attention and public schools) and which ones they should not.

Access to driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants has already proven to be a key issue in the Democratic primaries and will likely become even hotter during the general election campaign and could prove to be an important wedge issue for John McCain. This is one of the few issues that a majority of nearly every group supports the Republican candidate’s position -- in fact, among young Hispanics, only 53 percent support while 34 percent oppose access to driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.



The World in 20 Years

Young Americans Split Regarding Who Will Be the World’s Leading Economic Power in 2028

One of the main areas where 18 to 24 year old college students and those not in college have a significant divergence in opinion is on the future of the world economy. When we polled young Americans on who they predicted would be the world’s leading economic power in 20 years 3 -- a solid plurality (40%) of college students suggested China, 26 percent answered the United States and 18 percent the European Union; when the same question was asked of those not in college, 36 percent answered the United States, 31 China, 16 percent the European Union and 11 percent Japan.

According to a February 2008 Gallup Poll, 44 percent of adults nationwide believe China will be the world’s economic power and 31 percent say the United States. NB: In the same Gallup Poll, 40 percent say that China is the leading economic power today.

Republicans (39% U.S., 31% China) are the most optimistic about America’s economic future, whereas Democrats (28% U.S., 37% China) and Independents (27% U.S., 37% China) are less sanguine.


U.S. Predicted Military Power; U.N. the World’s Leading Peacekeeping Power

Although some debate exists among Americans young and old regarding which nation will be the leading economic power in 20 years, there is little debate among young Americans that the United States will be the world’s dominant military power. Sixty-four percent (64%) of all 18 to 24 year olds surveyed (65% of those in college, 64% of those not in college) believe that the U.S. will be the reining military power. The U.S. is followed by China at 17 percent, North Korea at 6 percent, and Russia and the European Union at 4 percent each.

For many years now, the IOP poll has highlighted the significant role that young Americans believe the United Nations must play in world affairs. They believe that the U.N. and other countries -- not the U.S. -- ought to take the lead in solving international crises and conflicts. This sentiment holds true in this survey as well as 41 percent of 18 to 24 year olds believe that the United Nations will be the world’s leading peacekeeping power in 20 years. Close to a quarter (23%) believe that the U.S. will play that role, 16 percent say the European Union and 12 percent say NATO.


Defining a New Ideology and the Importance of Religion

Better Understanding Moderates Through a Look at Religion

For the last four years, we have focused a significant portion of our Spring IOP survey on a statistical model that segments America’s youth vote into four very distinct clusters. In 2004, using this model based on discriminant analysis, we reported that over half of all young people defy traditional left-right political labels, instead their political affiliations and typology are predicated on their level of religiosity. The four segments of America’s ideology are -- Traditional Liberals (31% shown in dark blue in the chart below), Traditional Conservatives (12% in red), Secular Centrists (42% in gray) and Religious Centrists (15% in light blue) --and understanding the demographics, attitudes and level of political participation of each is key to winning elections in the United States (other research that we have completed indicates that similar segments exist among older members of the electorate as well.

Religious Centrists

Four months after the 2004 election between George W. Bush and John Kerry, Religious Centrists indicated that their vote was split evenly, 47 percent each for Bush and Kerry, while Secular Centrists preferred Bush by 30 points.

Accounting for 15 percent of all young voters, Religious Centrists are one of the most interesting and important segments of the electorate as they hold seemingly paradoxical views -- sometimes looking like Traditional Liberals and other times lining up with Traditional Conservatives.

Religious Centrists, which are mostly minority in composition (42% White, 33% African American/Black, 19% Hispanic) currently prefer Barack Obama to John McCain 65 percent to 19 percent (with Nader in the race) and Hillary Clinton to John McCain, 56 percent to 26 percent.

Two-thirds (66%) say that religion plays a “very” important part in their lives -- and when it comes to some of the more important social issues of the day, align with Traditional Conservatives:

  • Concern for the moral direction of the
  • School choice;
  • Homosexual relationships between
    consenting adults;
  • Role of religious values in government;
  • Cutting taxes is best way to create
    economic growth.

However, on several other key issues, Religious Centrists look and vote like members of the Democratic party and Traditional Liberals, specifically on:

  • Protecting the environment;
  • Universal health care coverage;
  • Affirmative action; and
  • Free trade.

The Secular Center

Nearly equal parts Democrat (29%) and Republican (30%), Secular Centrists represent more than four in ten (42%) young Americans today. Whereas 66 percent of Religious Centrists claim that religion is a very important part of their lives, less than half that number --28 percent -- of Secular Centrists feel the same way.

Secular Centrists also differ greatly in their opinions toward Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. For example, in a three-way race between Obama, McCain and Nader, Secular Centrists prefer Obama to McCain, by only 2 points, 37 percent to 35 percent. Twenty-four percent (24%) are undecided.

When Hillary Clinton is matched against John McCain, McCain wins handily, 41 percent to 27 percent. The difference therefore between Obama and Clinton is 16 points.

Far less decisive when it comes to political issues, Secular Centrists are less likely to vote compared to the two traditional segments. They share Traditional Conservative views that the best way to spur economic growth is to cut taxes, but also share Traditional Liberal views that the environment should be protected, even at the expense of some jobs.

Role of Outside Political Influences

In an attempt to further understand how political views are formed, IOP students developed questions that asked poll respondents to select the two most important characteristics that influence their political views based on a pre-determined list of eight attributes (plus options for “other” and “none”).

Below is a table that illustrates the significant differences between young Democrats and Republicans, noting that young Republicans report being primarily influenced through their religion and sense of being an American; whereas young Democrats cite a combination of their economic class, age group and their party as key influencers. 


The Role of Old and New Media In Campaign 2008

Cable News Tops List for Campaign News Outlet of Young Voters

There have been dramatic changes in recent years in the way in which young people receive news and information. These changes are not only generational in nature -- but there are also important differences within this key 18 to 24 year old cohort of the Millennial generation. For example, for 18 to 24 year olds who are not on a college campus, cable television is the preferred medium for political news and information (35% cite this as top choice), followed by broadcast news for 31 percent. For those on a college campus, cable news (37%) is nearly tied with non-newspaper Internet sources (35%) such as Yahoo and CNN.com. Below is a chart that highlights the difference in information sources based on whether or not someone is attending a four-year college or university.

Rise of Facebook as Political Organizing Tool

According to our Spring 2006 survey, slightly more than three-in-four (76%) college students had Facebook accounts -- and 14 percent of them had used Facebook to promote a political candidate, event or idea. Two years later, in the midst of a presidential election, 86 percent of college students have access to Facebook (57% of non-college students) and 37 percent of them have used it to promote a candidate or issue.

Overall, 23 percent of all 18 to 24 year olds have used Facebook for political purposes. Those subgroups most likely include:

  • 42% of graduate school students;
  • 32% of college students;
  • 30% of Traditional Liberals; and
  • 30% of Traditional Conservatives.

In addition to Facebook, MySpace is also a highly popular social networking tool, especially for 18 to 24 year olds not on a college campus. Sixty-eight percent (68%) of 18 to 24 year olds not on a college campus have a MySpace account, compared to 59 percent of college students. Among all young people between 18 and 24 in our poll, 11 percent have used MySpace for political organizing. Those most likely include:

  • 21% of Nader voters;
  • 16% of Hispanics;
  • 15% of Traditional Liberals;
  • 15% of Western state residents; and
  • 14% of those with landline telephones.


Jon Stewart vs. Stephen Colbert

Stewart, Colbert or Neither?

With both late night political satirists being recent guests at the Institute of Politics, members of our student survey group suggested asking the college age demographic for their overall preference -- Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.

With overall name recognition of 84 percent, there is little doubt that Stewart and Colbert are playing some role in the political education/ entertainment of this generation.



The Survey Group

James A. Leach
Director, Institute of Politics

Catherine McLaughlin
Executive Director, Institute of Politics

John Della Volpe
Director of Polling, Institute of Politics
Founder, SocialSphere Communications

Esten Perez
Director of Communications, Institute of Politics

Laura Simolaris
Director of National Programs, Institute of Politics

Jonathan Chavez ‘05
Student Chair ‘03-05 Director of Analytics, SocialSphere Strategies Marina Fisher ’09, Student Co-Chair

Jon Gould ’10
Student Co-Chair

Matthew Valji ’08
Student Co-Chair‘07-’08


David Escamilla '10
Samantha Fang '10
William Rose ’11
Cassie Snow ‘10
James Winter, ’11


* Denotes outgoing student chair

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 policymakers on a non-partisan 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 seven years.


1 CIRCLE: The Youth Vote 2004; Author’s Tabulations from the CPS Nov. Voting and Registration Supplements

2 JFK School Prof. David C. King’s Analysis of Election 2006; Webb won by 9,329 votes which can be accounted for by increased turnout and registration in Charlottesville and Norfolk alone; Tester topped Burns by 3,562 votes which can be accounted for by a surge in registration and turnout around the University of Montana campus in Missoula.