Redefining Political Attitudes and Activism: A Poll by Harvard’s Institute of Politics
November 16, 2005
Working with a group of Harvard undergraduates and the staff of the Institute of Politics, Prime Group, a bipartisan, professional polling firm, conducted 1,204 telephone interviews with college undergraduates from October 10-18, 2005.
The objectives of the survey were to track the attitudes of college undergraduates concerning community service and political engagement, to try to understand what college students consider to be political actions, and to examine their trust in major institutions. We also examined student opinions concerning the direction of the country under President Bush as well as the media habits of college students.
The margin of error for this survey is ±2.8 percent at the 95 percent confidence level but is higher for subgroups.
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 five 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. Today’s college students have come of age in a time of great historical importance. The Fall 2005 Harvard study of college student attitudes finds a high level of engagement with politics on campuses around the country and strong opinions about the issues that face the nation.
I. The Election of 2004 and the Politics of 2005: Effects on Political Engagement
The Election of 2004 Strongly Engaged College Students in Politics
The election of 2004 produced a massive engagement of college students both at the polls and on the campaign trail. Seventy-four percent (74%) of college students reported voting, nearly twice that of their 18-24 year-old counterparts not attending college. However, their engagement went even further. This year, fifteen percent (15%) of college students report having volunteered on a political campaign, double the number involved in 2000. Over a third (36%) have participated in a rally, up from a fifth (20%) in 2002. Sixteen percent (16%) have donated money to a political campaign or cause, while thirty percent (30%) have written an e-mail advocating a political position or opinion. Over the course of the Institute of Politics’ project to survey college students, this is the highest level of political involvement we have witnessed.
The Political Environment of 2005 and the Attitudes of College Students
College students are concerned about the current political situation, the people who represent them, and the policies those representatives are enacting. Seventy-two percent (72%) of students believe that politics is too partisan, while sixty-four percent (64%) believe that the tone of politics is too negative. When coupled with the fact that seventy-one percent (71%) of college students believe that elected officials do not share their priorities, the reason for decreased interest in politics seems clear. Consistent with this cynicism is the fact that fifty-eight percent (58%) of college students believe that the country is on the wrong track, the highest level in four years. The approval rating of President Bush has dropped ten percentage points since the fall of 2004 to forty-one percent (41%). This is a lower approval rating than that of President Clinton post-impeachment and is near the levels of President Johnson during the Vietnam War. Disapproval of President Bush among college students is consistent with the general public and is likely a major reason for disengagement among college students. The war in Iraq also weighs heavily on the minds of college students. Forty percent (40%) of college students believe we should withdraw some troops from Iraq, compared to twenty-seven percent (27%) among the general public. When asked what is the most important issue facing our country, students said the following:
- “The War in Iraq is drawing too much money and losing political support on a nationwide scale.”
- “War in Iraq. We need to get out of there with no casualties and leave their country in good standing.”
- “How do we get our troops out of Iraq without leaving room for hostile forces to take over?”
College students, like the general public, are deeply concerned about the state of politics today, a concern that logically impacts political attitudes.
Enthusiasm toward Politics has Waned since November 2, 2004
As witnessed, the frenzy of the 2004 campaign engaged college students like never before. However, enthusiasm towards politics has diminished. Interest in attending a political rally or volunteering on a campaign spiked in 2004 but returned to pre-election levels in 2005. The number of students who think that they need more information about politics before getting involved dropped significantly in 2004 but now has returned to pre-election levels. The same phenomenon is true of those who consider politics to be relevant to their lives right now. The attitude of college students towards politics has changed since the election of 2004.
Portraying and Understanding the Change in College Students’ Attitudes
The responses of students to five questions about the efficacy of politics in their lives illuminate the shift in attitudes between 2004 and 2005. The findings demonstrate:
- Those who agree that elected officials are motivated by selfish reasons rises by twelve percentage points from 2004 to 2005.
- The number of college students who think that politics is not relevant to their lives climbs by thirteen percentage points over the past year.
- The opinion that political involvement rarely has any tangible results, while trending down since 2000, increases by six percentage points between 2004 and 2005, back to levels witnessed in 2003.
- The number of students who do not believe they have a say about what the government does increases by seven percentage points from 2004.
Those who say that political engagement is an effective way of solving important issues in the country drops by eight percentage points from 2004. This data can potentially be explained in two ways: 1) by the growing cynicism among college students based on the current political situation, and 2) by the natural drop off in involvement after presidential campaigns. While the current political situation has already been discussed, the post- campaign environment must also be taken into account.
The Post-Campaign Environment and its Effect on College Students
College students are highly responsive to campaigns. During election years information about politics is widely available to college students. College students are targeted by campaigns and grassroots organizations. As such, they are not only receiving more information, but also have more opportunities for engagement. Given this environment, it is logical that college students demonstrate an increased interest in politics. Campaigns are also times of political idealism where candidates present broad visions for the future. This focus on political idealism may explain why college students are more inclined to think that political involvement is relevant to their lives and that it has tangible results. Campaigns are important opportunities for college students to engage in politics, and they have demonstrated their willingness to do so, as witnessed by the 2004 election when twenty-five percent (25%) of college students donated either time or money to political campaigns.
The Silver Lining: Students are Active in Politics and Believe it is Honorable
It is clear that the election of 2004 was an important political experience for this cohort of young Americans. Given the negative perception college students have of President Bush, the current political situation, as well as the post-campaign environment, the subdued interest in politics that college students demonstrate is regrettable but neither surprising nor out of line with the general public. However, college students still overwhelmingly believe that running for office (91%) and being an elected official (93%) is honorable. Students have high regard for politics as an institution. Further, nearly half (48%) of college students consider themselves to be politically active. These students are more likely to participate in community service, follow current affairs, and believe that politics has tangible results. Students still respect politics, and they are willing to participate on a wide scale.
College Students and Institutional Trust: The Global Generation Holds Firm
College Students Trust the UN more than the President and Federal Government
In the spring of 2005, the IOP’s survey concluded that this generation of college students is oriented toward international issues (see page two). This finding remains true today, as over half (52%) of those polled trust the United Nations most or all of the time. In comparison, only thirty-nine percent (39%) trust the President most or all of the time and only forty-four percent (44%) of students have this level of trust in the federal government. This generation of college students maintains an interest in international issues and trusts the UN and its actions.
Trust in the Military Holds Steady
Despite the war in Iraq, trust in the military has slipped very little in the past few years, only dropping four percentage points since 2002. Currently, sixty-five percent (65%) of students trust the military all or most of the time, a greater number than those who trust the Supreme Court (60%).
II. Redefining Political Activism for this Generation
Generational Differences in Political Involvement: Not Your Grandma’s Activism
Half of college students (48%) consider themselves politically active; however, their definition of political activism might be unrecognizable to the general public. Students’ grandparents’ generation expressed political preferences by voting, joining a union or joining a political party. Students’ parents marched, listened to political music, and participated in sit-ins. College students today have new ways of thinking about politics.
Following the Old Rules while Making New Rules: Changing Political Activism
College students, like their parents before them, are redefining political activism for their generation. They engage in traditional activities like voting (74%), attending rallies (36%), volunteering for campaigns (15%) and donating money to political campaigns and causes (16%). However, students give traditional activism a technological twist by writing e-mails in support of political causes (30%) and signing petitions online (36%). Participation in all of these activities reached levels during and after the 2004 presidential campaign, which were comparable to levels after the 2000 presidential campaign. Participation in rallies has also increased steadily over the last three years, from twenty percent (20%) in 2002 to thirty-six percent (36%) this year. Students are willing to get involved in the traditional forms of politics and are creating their own forms of involvement as well.
Silent Activism: T-Shirts, Wristbands, and Purchasing Power
While active in traditional ways, young people also believe that a broad range of other activities are political as well. Young people view political involvement as including activities like wearing a wristband in support of a political cause (70%), or wearing a t-shirt expressing a political or social opinion (79%). In other words, the t-shirt is the new yard sign. Twenty-eight percent (28% percent) of students consider volunteering for a community organization a political act and twenty-six percent (26%) believe that walking, running or biking for a charitable cause is a political act as well. Even consumer habits are political expressions: boycotting a company whose social or political values you disagree with resonates with seventy-four percent (74%) of students as a political act. For example, in 2005, a group of teenage girls “girlcotted” Abercrombie and Fitch over shirts that they felt demeaned women. What these new types of political activism have in common is that they are, by and large, silent and undertaken individually. Without joining committees or organizations, students are individually motivated and confident enough to wear t-shirts or wristbands or to boycott a specific product. College students no longer believe you have to join an organization to be political.
The good news is that students are politically active. In the way that they and their peers understand it, forty-percent (40%) of students did at least one thing they consider to be political. However, their new understanding of political activity — in a quiet and individual way — may be slipping under the radar of most campaigns and not connecting with elected policymakers.
III. Community Service and College Students
Community Service Remains Strong among College Students
Participation in community service has remained consistently strong among college students since the inception of the survey in 2000. Sixty-seven percent (67%) of students performed community service at least once during the past year -- as compared to the sixty percent (60%) who did so in 2000 -- and nearly one in four (24%) volunteer on a weekly basis. This suggests that successive classes of high school students have entered college with a strong sense of the importance of personal involvement in the community. Furthermore, college students overwhelmingly see community service as an effective way to solve problems both in their local community (90%) and in the country as a whole (81%).
Because the vast majority of college students polled view community service as honorable (98%), levels of community service are likely to remain high in the future. The survey results reveal that young people value giving back and serving others through community involvement.
Differences in Community Service between Men and Women
Interestingly, when current involvement and potential for future involvement are considered, gender differences emerge. Sixty-nine percent (69%) of women report having participated in community service within the past year, compared to sixty-four percent (64%) of men. It is noteworthy, however, that while sixty-nine percent (69%) of men report having time for activities other than schoolwork or a job, only fifty-six percent (56%) of women report the same. The survey implies that despite having less time, women are as active or more active in community service than men on campus.
Not only do women volunteer more than men, but also there is a greater potential for women to become involved with community service if encouraged. Fifty-four percent (54%) of men report that they would likely agree to volunteer for community service if asked to do so by a friend or peer, whereas seventy-four percent (74%) of women report that they would likely agree. This twenty percentage point gap is significant because it suggests that women are more likely to become involved when motivated by others.
Community Service as a Bridge to Political Involvement- Especially for Women
While a gap between men and women is not as pronounced when college students are asked if they would agree to volunteer for a political campaign or attend a political rally if asked by a friend or peer, women still report that they would become involved in higher percentages than men do. Furthermore, the difference between the willingness of women and men to become involved in community service when encouraged by others reveals that peer encouragement may be more effective in inducing women to get involved in politics than previously realized. Perhaps, then, to increase the numbers of women involved in politics, energy should be directed toward making current college political leaders aware that female community service volunteers are likely to consider political involvement if encouraged. As the graph indicates, community volunteers tend to be more politically active. Further, since almost one in three poll respondents (28%) consider volunteering with a community organization to be a political activity, the next wave of political leadership may well come from the community service sector.
IV. The Media Habits of College Students
Students Tune in to Traditional News Sources. American college students follow current events through a variety of media. Sixty-eight percent (68%) of students follow news about national politics somewhat or very closely. Seventy-nine percent (79%) of students watch network TV news channels regularly or sometimes, while seventy-five percent (75%) watch Cable news channels regularly or sometimes. Comparatively, sixty-six percent (66%) of the general population watches Cable news sometimes or regularly. Students also read the newspaper in large numbers, both online and in print. Forty-three percent (43%) of students regularly or sometimes read online newspapers and the same amount said they regularly or sometimes read print editions. Here there is a great divergence from the general population— only twenty-eight percent (28%) of the general population report reading newspapers online. The fact that students are equally as likely to read print or online editions is somewhat surprising given that college students have nearly universal Internet access, which makes access to online editions easy. Considering that thirty-four percent (34%) of students read online columns or blogs regularly or occasionally, the Internet appears to be gaining influence as an important source of news and opinion for college students.
Readers and Watchers
Students clearly cluster into two types of media consumers: readers and watchers. The watchers pay attention to cable and broadcast TV. The readers go to the Internet or read hard copies of papers.
They also are more likely to read blogs. Surprisingly, there is not a lot of overlap between these groups, except among Jon Stewart's audience. This analysis is especially important when considering how to reach out to college voters. Campaigns and politicians cannot simply advertise through television or newspapers but must pay attention to both. This is true regardless of party, as there is little difference among where Republican, Democrat, and Independent college students get their news. In other words, college students must be treated like the rest of the electorate with respect to their media habits.
Jon Stewart: The Walter Cronkite for College Students?
Forty-two percent (42%) of college students regularly or sometimes watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. However, The Daily Show is not these students’ only source of news. Fifty-nine percent (59%) of students who regularly watch The Daily Show follow national news in some other form, indicating that their sole source of news is not The Daily Show. Viewers of The Daily Show also fit a particular profile. Forty-five percent (45%) of Democrats and forty-five percent (45%) of Independents regularly or sometimes watch The Daily Show, while only nineteen percent (19%) of Republicans do. Among students with no religious preference, fifty percent (50%) regularly or sometimes watch, while only thirty-two percent (32%) of students who consider themselves to be born-again Christians fit into the same category. There also appears to be a significant gender gap in viewership: fifty-six percent (56%) of college males watch compared with thirty-one percent (31%) of college females. While The Daily Show resonates with a large audience of college students, its viewers fit into a fairly defined profile.
V. A Message to Politicians and the Campaigns of 2006 and 2008: Engage this Generation
In order to garner votes and volunteers, politicians and campaigns should follow these four steps:
- Recognize that college students’ conception of political activity differs from their parents and grandparents. In addition to traditional modes of political involvement, students are willing to forward e-mails, sign online petitions, wear t-shirts and wristbands and boycott certain companies. These new forms of political activity may be silent and individually-focused, but they are effective. For instance, having students walk around with t-shirts shouting a political message can start discussion among people and is essentially free advertising. Tapping into these new forms of political activity could garner amazing results for the candidates in 2006 and 2008.
- Personally ask students to get involved. Our survey finds that if asked by a friend or peer, students are much more likely to attend rallies or demonstrations, volunteer on campaigns and engage in community service. Twenty-six percent (26%) of college students would agree to volunteer for a campaign if asked by a friend or peer. Since there are currently almost ten million American college students, campaigns could potentially attract 2.5 million volunteers if they would just ask. Also, candidates and campaigns should not be discouraged by numbers that seem to suggest a recent decrease in student political involvement. This decrease is part of a natural pattern that occurred after the 2000 Presidential campaign year and is likely not an indication of a continued downward trend. It also has likely been influenced by the current political situation. College students will be willing to increase their involvement for 2006 and 2008 if campaigns ask.
- Be honorable in your campaigns and actions. Ninety-three percent (93%) of college students believe that politics is an honorable profession but are unhappy with the current state of politics. Presidential trust is at an all-time low and trust of the federal government is not much higher. Nearly three-fourths of students (70%) believe that elected officials seem to be motivated by selfish reasons, and sixty-nine percent (69%) do not believe that negative campaigning is an acceptable part of politics. Politicians need to gain students’ trust and, at the same time, engage in more positive campaign strategies. Students want to believe politicians are honorable; candidates and elected officials just have to prove that they are.
- Talk to students through the media the same way you would talk to adults. Students pay attention to many news sources, offering multiple venues for connection. Candidates and elected officials cannot attract the youth vote simply by appearing on MTV. Reach out to college students as you would any other demographic. Students are listening.
Survey Working Group
Director, Institute of Politics
Executive Director, Institute of Politics
Faculty Advisor, Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard, Associate Director and Director of Research, Institute of Politics
John Della Volpe
Partner, Prime Group
Director of Communications, Institute of Politics
Director of National Programs, Institute of Politics
Caitlin Monahan ’06
Krister Anderson ’07
Beiting Cheng ’09
Aram Demirjian ’08
Marina Fisher ’09
Elizabeth Grosso ’08
Loui Itoh ’07
Steve Johnston ’09
Brittney Moraski ’09
Brent Speed ’09
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 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 five years.