Bush Losing Stronghold on College Campuses: Kerry Favored 48-38

A new national poll by the Kennedy School of Government’s Institute of Politics (IOP) at Harvard University finds that Democrat John Kerry holds a 10-point lead (48 versus 38 points) over President Bush among America’s college students, though Kerry’s support is soft. Support for Senator Kerry seems to reflect growing dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq, a continued weak job market, and the President’s stance on gay marriage.

This represents a turnaround from the IOP’s fall poll, which found college students more supportive of the President than is the general public.

The poll also includes a new method for assessing the political ideology of America’s college students. The 11-question “Harvard Institute of Politics’ Political Personality Test” finds that the old “liberal” and “conservative” labels do not fit more than half of today’s college students, who are mostly centrists and highly independent. The test is available online at www.iop.harvard.edu for those who would like to determine how their views compare to those of America’s college students.

“Concern over the war in Iraq and weakness in the job market has caught up with President Bush,” said IOP Director Dan Glickman. “College students now share the general public’s more mixed view of the President, and Senator Kerry is benefiting from that shift. Still, these are highly independent voters who are open to persuasion and it would be in the interests of both parties to court them aggressively.”

The survey of 1205 college students, drawn randomly from a national database of nearly 5.1 million students, finds –

o They favor Kerry over Bush, but Kerry’s support is soft. Sen. Kerry leads President Bush by 48 to 38 percent. Ralph Nader draws five percent of the vote. But Kerry’s support is soft. Thirty-seven percent of those surveyed say they do not know enough about Sen. Kerry to have formed an opinion about him or do not recognize his name. It appears that many of those who say they are planning to vote for Sen. Kerry are simply looking for an alternative to President Bush.

o Support for the President has declined as concerns about Iraq grow. Support for the war in Iraq dropped from 58 percent six months ago to 49 percent. At the same time, Bush’s job approval rating fell 14 points, from 61 percent to 47 percent.

o They continue to view the job market as weak. Two-thirds believe it will be difficult to find a job after graduation, nearly identical to the October 2003 poll, when the national economy was considered even weaker.

o They support legalizing gay marriage. Fifty-seven percent support marriage between homosexuals, which is opposed by 61 percent of the general population.

o They remain highly independent but have distanced themselves from the Republicans. A plurality of students continues to self-identify as Independent – 41 percent now compared to 38 percent six months ago. However, fewer students call themselves Republicans – 24 percent now versus 31 percent in the fall. Democratic identification increased from 27 percent to 32 percent during the same period.

o The old “liberal” and “conservative” labels do not fit most of today’s college students. The poll provides a new system for grouping college students by four political ideologies, as determined by 11 key questions. Most students are in the center. These swing voters, who are concerned with social issues that are not the primary focus of political debate, are clearly up for grabs. The four groupings are:

o Traditional Liberals (32% of college students) – This group strongly believes the country is on the wrong track. They support gay rights and affirmative action. They disagree with the “Bush doctrine” of preemption and the decision to go to war with Iraq. They lopsidedly (79%-8%) support Sen. Kerry over President Bush.

o Traditional Conservatives (16% of college students) – This group staunchly supports President Bush; 72% are planning to vote for him and roughly the same proportion approve of his job performance. More than three-quarters of those in this cluster support the decision to go to war in Iraq. Six in ten believe that homosexual relationships are morally wrong.

o Religious Centrists (23% of college students) – This group views religion as an important part of life and believes it should play a larger role in government. Compared to their peers, they are most concerned about the country’s moral direction. Yet, unlike traditional conservatives, they believe that health insurance is a right that the government ought to provide. They also support affirmative action. This group is the most racially diverse (32% non-white) and the least likely to be familiar with Sen. Kerry; 48% do not know enough to evaluate him. They lean in favor of President Bush (51%-34%).

o Secular Centrists (29% of college students) – This group, the most independent, favors less intrusive government and believes that religious values should not play an important role in government. They support gay marriage and oppose affirmative action. They are currently split evenly between Bush and Kerry. This group is least likely to vote.

o Honesty is important. Three-fourths of students say they would definitely or probably not vote for a candidate who cheated on his taxes; 67 percent say they would definitely or probably not vote for a candidate who lied on his resume. A majority of students would still vote for a candidate who did not believe in God.

o They are engaged and are planning to vote in November. Sixty-two percent say they have been following the campaign for President closely and 62% say they will “definitely” vote in November. Many students, particularly those in the center of the political spectrum, are still forming their own political beliefs and party affiliations. These potential voters are especially concerned with social issues and are looking for candidates who will speak to their issues and seek their involvement.

Harvard students designed the poll, in consultation with Professor David King and pollster John Della Volpe, whose firm Scheiders/Della Volpe/Schulman conducted the survey and analyzed the data. Complete results and past surveys are available online at www.iop.harvard.edu.