Fall 2006 - Executive Summary


The 11th Biannual Youth Survey on Politics and Public Service
by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics

November 1, 2006


Whether we refer to them as Millenials, Generation Y, or perhaps most fitting, Generation 9/11, the 27 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 are poised to make their presence known in community and civic life. In our eleventh installment of the Harvard University Institute of Politics’ Survey on Politics and Public Service, we have widened the lens and are looking beyond the 13.3 million college students exploring the attitudes and opinions of all 18 to 24 year olds living in the United States.

Over the course of the last six years, we have studied college undergraduates and:

  • tracked pre-and post-9/11 attitudes toward our political system, government and the media and noted the dramatic shifts in attitude regarding the efficacy of political involvement, the relevance of politics to their lives and the motivations of elected officials;

  • accurately predicted the spike in turnout for the 2004 presidential election, where 3 million more 18 to 24 year olds voted than in 2000, the highest percentage turnout since 1972, one year after 18 to 20 year olds were given the right to vote;

  • addressed the growing importance of religion in the lives of college students, their view of the world and their attitudes toward politics; and

  • marked the generational shift in attitudes toward foreign affairs noting that by overwhelming majorities students believe that the United Nations, and not the United States, ought to take the lead in solving international crises and conflicts.

From this point forward we will focus our attention on all 18 to 24 year olds, paying particular attention to the meaningful differences that exist between those attending a four-year college or university and those who do not. This project is the largest and most comprehensive poll of political attitudes and behaviors of young adults in the United States.

The interviewing period for this survey of n=2,546 18 to 24 year olds (margin of error is ± 1.96%), was October 4 to October 16, 2006. Taken less than a month after the fifth anniversary of 9/11 and on the eve of historic midterm elections, our team profiles this generation and reports on Election 2006, civic life and the lasting impacts of the September 11th attacks on the personal and political psyches of this generation.

With landline telephone coverage of 18 to 24 year olds at only 52 percent (Internet use is 84%), RDD polling for this demographic is not reliable; this is the first time the IOP poll was conducted exclusively online. Professor David C. King and IOP Polling Director John Della Volpe of Prime Group, LLC supervised the survey group, which was led by student chair and Harvard undergraduate Krister Anderson (’07).

As always, the IOP survey group would like to thank IOP Director, Governor Jeanne Shaheen and Executive Director Catherine McLaughlin for their insights and support over the course of the project.


Profile of a Generation

Keeping with our protocol of conducting approximately n=1,200 interviews with college undergraduates, in this survey we completed n=1,272 interviews with current undergraduates, n=1,274 interviews with 18 to 24 year olds who are not 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.

Demographic profile:

• 51 percent male, 49 percent female;
• 39 percent between 18 and 20 years olds, 61 percent between 21 and 24 years old;
• 73 percent White, 11 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Black/African American;
• 40 percent say that religion is a very important part of their life;
• 14 percent are parents or guardians of a minor, 12 percent are married; and
• 4 percent are a member of the Armed Services or National Guard.

Educational profile:
• 83 percent of 18 to 24 year olds who are not currently enrolled in high school are either currently enrolled in some form of college, have taken some college courses or have obtained a secondary degree of some kind. In addition, 75 percent of those not currently enrolled in high school or a four year college have participated in some form of higher education. For this generation, higher education is the norm rather than the exception.

Civic profile:
• 72 percent are registered to vote;
• 60 percent follow national politics closely;
• 35 percent consider themselves Democrats, 27 percent Republicans and 39 percent are Independent;
• 35 percent consider themselves to be politically engaged. Media and communications profile:
• 87 percent own a cell phone and only 52 percent have a landline;
• 30 percent watch network TV news on a regular basis; 23 percent watch cable TV news regularly; and 16 percent watch the Daily Show with Jon Stewart regularly;
• 14 percent read online versions of major daily newspapers regularly, 14 percent read online columns or blogs and 7 percent read the print edition of major newspapers regularly.

Reflecting on the role that technology has in staying connected with both friends and current events, student chair Krister Anderson said,

“As I move out of college to grad school two things keep me informed and effective: the Internet and my cell phone. I know that with these tools I have the ability to stay connected to world affairs and those important to me. Even when I was in Morocco this summer I could speak with my parents or follow the affairs of my hometown. As I move through my twenties I value the information and flexibility today's tools afford and can't imagine an unconnected world.”


A Generation Speaking as One

Midterm Election Turnout Could Be Historic

With historic midterm elections days away, 18 to 24 year olds appear poised to vote in greater numbers than they have in the last several elections. At the time the survey was taken, 72 percent of 18 to 24 year olds were registered to vote and nearly a third (32%) reported that they would “definitely be voting” on November 7th. Even if turnout falls slightly on Election Day, it is likely that more young people will vote in the 2006 midterms than at any time in the last two decades. Over the last four midterm elections, turnout among 18 to 24 year olds averaged 21 percent while those aged 25 or older averaged 51 percent turnout. The highest midterm turnout since 1974 was 1982 when 27 percent of young adults voted. Among all 18 to 24 year olds in our survey, the subgroup most likely to vote on November 7th are recent college graduates (45% say they will definitely vote), while those who have never attended college or are still in high school are the least likely.

Iraq Continues to Dominate Agenda

With historic midterm elections days away, 18 to 24 year olds appear poised to vote in greater numbers than they have in the last several elections. At the time the survey was taken, 72 percent of 18 to 24 year olds were registered to vote and nearly a third (32%) reported that they would “definitely be voting” on November 7th. Even if turnout falls slightly on Election Day, it is likely that more young people will vote in the 2006 midterms than at any time in the last two decades. Over the last four midterm elections, turnout among 18 to 24 year olds averaged 21 percent while those aged 25 or older averaged 51 percent turnout. The highest midterm turnout since 1974 was 1982 when 27 percent of young adults voted. Among all 18 to 24 year olds in our survey, the subgroup most likely to vote on November 7th are recent college graduates (45% say they will definitely vote), while those who have never attended college or are still in high school are the least likely.

Midterm Grades for the President

Asked to grade President Bush on seven of the top issues facing the nation, young adults gave the President below average grades, with his handing of immigration issues and Iraq receiving the lowest grades of all. None of the issues surveyed received a grade higher than C. President Bush’s handling of Iraq, clearly the issue that is driving this election and the President’s second-term agenda, is viewed by more than two-in-five (43%) young Americans (and 67% of young African Americans) as a failure or “F.” Nine percent (9%) gave the President an “A” on Iraq, 14 percent a “B,” 19 percent a “C,” and 15 percent a “D” on Iraq.


When faced with four different scenarios for dealing with Iraq, ranging from immediate and complete withdrawal to sending more troops, close to half of young Americans (46%) believe that the U.S. should either withdraw all troops immediately (16%) or withdraw all troops in the next year (30%). In addition, a solid third (33%) also want to withdraw troops but not until control can be given to the Iraqis. Five percent (5%), most of whom are Republican men from the South, believe the U.S. should send more troops to Iraq. Fifteen percent (15%) of the sample were not satisfied with any of the scenarios provided.

Midterm Elections

A plurality (41%) of all 18 to 24 year olds in the survey prefer that the Democrats win control of Congress on November 7, a quarter (25%) prefer that the Republicans maintain control and 34 percent have no preference. Among those most likely to vote, 52 percent prefer Democratic control, and 29 percent prefer Republican control.


Community Service Preferred Route to Solving Major Problems in the Country
and in Communities

Community and Political Service

In the last 12 months, 51 percent of all 18 to 24 year olds have volunteered for community service – over half (58%) of which volunteer about once a month or more. With our nation’s high schools and colleges appearing to be catalysts, our data indicates that students enrolled in high school, college and graduate school are more likely to be active volunteers than their counterparts not enrolled in school.

In addition, we found that the younger side of this cohort, 18 and 19 year olds (73%), those who attend a private university (65%) and young adults who say that religion is very important to them (64%) are the more likely than others to be community volunteers.

While a majority volunteered for community service in the last year, less than half that number (19%), have participated in a government, political or issues-related organization. Similar to community service participation, the highest levels of political involvement are among current undergraduate (25%) and graduate students (29%) – as the campus environment appears to successfully break down the barriers for many students -- when compared to 18 to 24 year olds not enrolled in similar college or graduate programs.

If asked by a friend or peer to volunteer on a political campaign, nearly half (48%) of all 18 to 24 year olds said that they would likely say “yes,” assuming they supported the platform or issue. African Americans (58%), Democrats (61%) and women (51%) are among the most likely subgroups of young adults to join a friend’s cause. In similar questions, 62 percent indicated that they would likely attend a rally or demonstration if asked and 81 percent would volunteer for community service if asked.

Community Volunteerism vs. Political Engagement and Trust in Our Institutions

Based on the data we have collected and analyzed, the trust that young people developed in the immediate aftermath of September 11th in government, elected officials, political institutions and the system has seemed to dissipate. For example:

  • Community volunteerism is preferred over political engagement to solve important issues facing communities (81% view community volunteerism as effective, 70% view political engagement as effective) – and volunteerism is seen as about as effective as political engagement for solving issues facing the country (62% view community volunteerism as effective, 60% see political engagement as effective);
  • Less than a third of 18 to 24 year olds trust the President (31%), Congress (29%) or the federal government (28%) to do the right thing all or most of the time. For comparison, the media is the least trusted institution measured (12%), with the United Nations earning the trust of 38 percent, the Supreme Court 50 percent and the U.S. military – still the most trusted institution by young people – at 55 percent. In addition, approximately three in four young adults believe that “politics has become too partisan” (74%), “elected officials do not seem to have the same priorities” they have (75% agree), and “elected officials seem to be motivated by selfish reasons” (78% agree).

While attitudes toward the political process have soured recently, most likely due to government response to Iraq and Katrina, 70 percent of young adults - especially those who are college graduates (84%) and those who are a little older (75% of 22-24 year olds) and likely voted in the 2004 presidential campaign, still believe that “politics is relevant” in their lives.

As Marina Fisher, Harvard undergrad and survey group member said,
“I asked my roommate why twice as many students turn toward community service than to political activism and she replied that politics made her feel sleazy, especially in light of current scandals while volunteerism made her feel good about herself. She stressed that young people who want to make a difference seek to help in the ways in which they believe they will be most effective. She said, ‘Eventually I do want to help the country through direct political changes but, at this point in my life, I think I can make the biggest difference through hands-on work.’”


The Bright Side of 9/11 -- Civic Engagement and Global Perspective

9/11 – Five Years Later

Focused on understanding and tracking the political attitudes and engagement of 18 to 24 year olds since 2000, the IOP survey team has tried to grasp how the attacks of September 11th have influenced the political awareness of this generation. For some, 9/11 occurred while in middle school and for others, the beginning of college. For all, it is one of the major public events of their lifetimes, the most prominent among other major events like the contested election of 2000, the War in Iraq and Katrina.

Nearly two in three 18 to 24 year olds (65%) indicate that 9/11 has had some effect on their views toward politics and government - and nearly half (31%) of those young adults say that 9/11 and the aftermath has caused them to become more cynical and distrustful of government. Overall, 38 percent of Democrats, 22 percent of Republicans and 40 percent of Independents indicated that the 9/11 aftermath has caused them to distrust government. Examples include:

“The reaction to 9/11 disturbed me. I understand that it was a tragedy and a cause for serious concern about terrorism but the Patriot Act, the strict but ineffective airport security and the racial profiling and hatred that stemmed from 9/11 has shown me a government that is not effective or rational.” (College graduate)

"It has made me more ashamed and embarrassed of the US Government and the President's ability to handle things. I think politics is more important than ever, and I think we're just starting to see the ugly side of it." (Community College student)

Others expressed distrust of the President and the Republican party specifically (7%), while five percent (5%) expressed distrust of both political parties.

Six percent (6%) say that the events of 9/11 made them more politically active, as one student said:

"I tend to distrust the government more than I used to. I have also decided to become more actively involved in our government rather than just to sit back and let it continue on without my input." (High School student)

In addition, five percent (5%) report that 9/11 caused them to believe that government needs more powers to protect its citizens. Republicans (9%) are about twice as likely as Democrats and Independents to subscribe to this theory.

On a personal level, a number of 18 to 24 year olds expressed a new sense of vulnerability after 9/11 and and a greater awareness of global events and America’s place in the world. Examples of these personal reflections include:

“It made me realize that, even as Americans, we are just as vulnerable to attacks on our country as any other.” (Unenrolled in college)

“The tragedy of 9/11 showed me that the nest that I live in is not as safe and warm and secure as I once thought.” (Unenrolled in college)

“It forced me to think globally. Our actions have effects felt around the world and so do the actions of others.” (College student)

Similar to the best of previous generations that have been marked by tragedy and distrust in the system, this generation has chosen not to sit on the sidelines, instead they chose to get engaged.


Ten Things Our Leaders Should Know About this Generation


1. 9/11 and its aftermath transformed the way young people think about politics. Before 9/11, young adults stayed on the sidelines and did not engage in political discourse. They were distrustful of government and did not find politics relevant; after 9/11, the war on terror, Katrina and Iraq, they still distrust government, but know the impact of engagement and pledge to vote, stay informed and involved.

2. Political engagement extends beyond college campuses with literally millions of young adults following current events and actively participating in the political process through volunteering and voting.

3. Across this generation, the War in Iraq is by far the most important issue, driving the debate and resulting in a massive call for change in Washington.

4. The Bush Administration, at is halfway point in its second term, is graded no higher than a C on seven of the most important issues facing the country. The grades for Iraq and immigration are the lowest.

5. The U.S. Military, the Supreme Court and the United Nations are the most trusted institutions tested in the survey. The media, Congress, the federal government and the President are considered far less trustworthy.

6. Though more needs to be done, college campuses are catalysts for volunteerism, voting, and providing information and materials to those who seek to get connected, registered to vote and politically engaged.

7. The spirit of volunteerism is alive and well; half of all 18 to 24 year olds are actively involved in community service and even more are interested in finding ways to get involved.

8. A majority are following national politics, and while new forms of electronic media are being used by many, traditional network and cable news are still a mainstay for this generation. Print edition newspapers, however, are not with online versions being read by a margin of two to one.

9. For this generation higher eduction is the norm rather than the exception. More than four of five 18 to 24 year olds not in high school are in college or in some way extending their education through community colleges or outside classes.

10. This is a generation of smart, active and informed voters -- 27 million strong. They cut their teeth in the 2004 election and will likely stay involved in the future. The next wave of young voters, today’s 11 to 17 year olds, are an even larger slice of the pie -- totaling over 30 million.



The Survey Group


Jeanne Shaheen
Director, Institute of Politics

Catherine McLaughlin
Executive Director, Institute of Politics

John Della Volpe
Director of Polling, Institute of Politics

David King
Director of Research, Institute of Politics Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard

Esten Perez
Director of Communications, Institute of Politics

Laura Simolaris
Director of National Programs, Institute of Politics

Krister Anderson
’07 Survey Chair

Josh Allen ’09*
Chris Chen ’10
Katie Demers ’08
Ben Faber ’10
Marina Fisher ’09*
Nathan Taylor ’10
Matthew Valji ’08*

* Denotes Member of Student Leadership Team

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 six years.