Spring 2004 Youth Survey - Executive Summary



Executive Report



Working with a group of Harvard undergraduates and the staff of the Institute of Politics, Schneiders/ Della Volpe/ Schulman, a bipartisan, professional polling firm, conducted 1,205 telephone interviews with college undergraduates from March 12 to March 23, 2004.

The objectives of the survey were to track the attitudes of college undergraduates related to politics from earlier IOP studies, to create a new ideology index that accurately reflects undergraduates’ political stances, and to measure opinions of college undergraduates regarding:

  • The 2004 election and the issues driving their votes;
  • Current events, the war in Iraq, gay marriage, and other issues; and
  • Leadership and suitability of candidates to hold office.

The margin of error for this survey is ± 2.8 percent at the 95 percent confidence level, but is higher for subgroups.


I. Key Findings

1. Bush loses his stronghold on college campuses: Kerry, Democrats benefit.

Students are more likely to identify themselves as Democrats than they were in the recent past. The current eight-point gap in party identification is the largest either party has enjoyed since 2000. John Kerry enjoys a lead in the horserace that is consistent with the gap in party ID. Whereas most national polls show the race between Bush and Kerry to be a dead heat, or show Bush up by a few percentage points, Kerry enjoys a double-digit lead over Bush among college students. This lead is a new trend among college students; last year, when asked to choose between Bush and an unnamed Democratic candidate, Bush held a slight lead among college students. Even with Nader in the race, Kerry has reversed this trend and built a lead. This lead, however, is soft.


The gap widens when a likely voter screen is put into place. Taking into account only voters who are registered to vote and who will “definitely be voting” Kerry’s lead surges to 23 points.


2. John Kerry’s lead over Bush is a soft lead: “Anybody but Bush.”

While John Kerry enjoys a very low unfavorable rating (18%), 37% of voters still do not know enough about him to have an opinion. One-quarter of those who favor Kerry over Bush do not have enough information to rate Kerry or do not recognize his name. The relative strength of support Kerry enjoys is much less than the strength Bush enjoys. Thirty-eight percent of Bush voters have a “very favorable” opinion of him, while only thirteen percent of Kerry voters have a “very favorable” opinion of Kerry.

The soft support for Kerry is indicative of a larger trend that seems to be driving the shift in party identification toward the Democratic Party. Students who identify themselves as Democrats are frustrated with the President and are willing to elect “anybody but Bush,” as one respondent said. This is reflected in President Bush’s falling approval rating. His rating among undergraduates in October stood at 61%, higher than his rating among he population as a whole. That number has fallen to 47%, and is now in line with the population as a whole. This drop is consistent with other moves away from Bush in the Presidential horserace, and in a move away from Republican identification.


The shift away from Bush shows up both in party ID and the reasoning behind party ID. The vast of majority of Republicans identify with the Republican Party on the basis of a conservative ideology or based on their upbringing as Republicans (60% total). Many Democrats cite policy issues and problems with the policies of the Republican Party and President Bush as their reason for identification with the Democratic Party. Still, even with this shift toward the Democratic Party, more students identify themselves as independents than as Republicans or Democrats. The number one reason for the identification as an independent is their desire to not be tied to voting for a candidate based simply on party: they want to be free to choose for themselves from election to election.

Democrats seem to choose their party based largely on policy issues they agree with and a dislike for the Bush administration and the Republican Party. Examples of verbatim rationales for identification as a Democrat are:

“I don’t like Bush because he is arrogant, pompous, and not very respectful to anyone in power, which cause me to lean towards the Democratic Party.”

“Because I don’t really agree with how George W. Bush has run things.”

“The track record of the Democratic party has outweighed that of the Republican Party.”

“I just like them better than the Republicans.”


For Republicans, party identification is reflective of a strong belief in a conservative ideology, and a conservative upbringing:

“I like old fashioned conservative ways.”

“The fact that they are conservative in such beliefs as capital punishment, gay marriage and abortion.”

“I grew up in a conservative community and those are the views I was taught.”

“Because Republican politicians seem to make moral stands.”

“I believe in the words of the founders, and belief in less government.”

For independents, their desire to not be identified as a member of either party stems largely from the view that the best way to decide an election is to not come in with a preconceived notion of which party one wants to vote for: instead, one should choose based on the issues and candidates in that particular election. The other main reason for identification as an independent is a sense that neither major party adequately addresses the needs and concerns of America:

“Because to tie yourself to any one political party is to limit yourself to only what that party has to offer.”

“Because when you think of yourself as a Democrat or Republican, you limit yourself.”

“Because I feel that being an independent allows me to make up my own mind instead of just agreeing with someone else.”

“I feel like the Republicans and Democratic parties spend their time going back and forth on their issues instead of addressing the needs of America and following through.”

“I feel like a lot of my peers are heavily influenced by their parents; and I would like to have a different perspective, a unique perspective, my own perspective.”

This reasoning for party identification and the lack of “strong beliefs” held by members of either party on issues shows that college students are still forming their beliefs on issues and getting a feel for the political system. There are only two instances when over half the members of any given party either strongly agree or strongly disagree with a statement of political ideology: 59% of Democrats strongly disagree with the statement “homosexual relationships between consenting adults are morally wrong,” and 52% of Democrats also strongly agree that “basic health insurance is a right for all people, and if someone has no means of paying for it, the government should provide it.”



3. There is a generational gap on gay rights and gay marriage

While college students’ views on many issues are not significantly different from the population as a whole, college students have a fundamentally different attitude toward homosexual rights. This gap in support emerges almost entirely among Democrats and independents. Support among college Republicans is the same as support for gay marriage among national Republicans.

4. Confidence in the job market remains low.

Recent improvement in the economy has led to a slight increase in confidence about entering the job market among college students. Still, overall confidence remains low. The majority of college students, regardless of year in school feel it will be “somewhat” or “very difficult” to find a job after graduation. In the past year, students have moved only seven points on this issue.


5. Support for the war in Iraq has declined over the past year.

Support for the war in Iraq has fallen over the course of the past year. While support for the war has fallen with the general population, the drop in support among college students is larger, and college students are now evenly divided about having gone to war with Iraq.

The war in Iraq is the number one political concern of college students right now. This stands in contrast to the country as a whole, which rates the economy as the most important issue facing the country. With college students, defense issues (Iraq and the war on terror) rank first, with 33% of colleges students rating it as the most important issue facing the country.


6. Issues surrounding honesty are the most likely make college students not vote for a candidate.

The survey tested to see if a given action, behavior, or characteristic would make someone less likely to vote for a candidate. The eight questions asked can be broken into three categories:

1. Honesty:

  • Lied on their resume
  • Cheated on their taxes

2. Irresponsibility:

  • Avoided Military service
  • Convicted of drunk driving
  • Abused drugs

3. Other:

  • Does not believe in God
  • Had an extramarital affair
  • Had a homosexual relationship

Percentage of college students who would NOT vote for a candidate if he/she had...



II. Political Ideology of College Students

Through statistical analysis, we divided college students into four ideological groups that reflect the ways in which they view political issues. Students did not break down on a traditional left- right spectrum. Instead, their political identity should be looked at on two spectrums. The first is the traditional liberal-conservative spectrum. The second is a religious-secular spectrum. These 11 agree/disagree statements were used to determine where they fit on this spectrum:

  • The best way to increase economic growth and create jobs is to cut taxes.
  • Our country’s goal in trade policy should be to eliminate all barriers to trade and employment so that we have a truly global economy.
  • Basic health insurance is a right for all people, and if someone has no means of paying for it, the government should provide it.
  • Qualified minorities should be given special preferences in hiring and education.
  • Religious values should play a more important role in government.
  • In today’s world, it is sometimes necessary to attack potentially hostile countries, rather than waiting until we are attacked to respond.
  • Protecting the environment should be as high a priority for government as protecting jobs.
  • Homosexual relationships between consenting adults are morally wrong.
  • If parents had more freedom to choose where they could send their children to school, the education system in this country would be much better.
  • I am concerned about the moral direction of the country.
  • Recent immigration into this country has done more good than harm.

The answers to these questions were then complied and students were then grouped into four categories based on similarities they shared with other members of those categories. The four groups are –

Traditional Liberals: 32% of the College Population Traditional Conservatives: 16% of the College Population Religious Centrists: 23% of the College Population Secular Centrists: 29% of the College Population


Traditional Liberals

Basic Facts:

  • Make up 32% of the population
  • Strongly support Kerry: 79% to 8%
  • 53% Democrat, 42% Independent, 3% Republican, 1% Other
  • Most likely to vote among all groups: 71 % will “definitely be voting”
  • Strongly oppose having gone to war with Iraq: 80% strongly or somewhat oppose
  • Strong support of gay marriage: 86% in favor

Ideologically they are driven by:

  • Opposition to Pre-emptive Strikes
  • Support of Gay Rights
  • Support of Immigration
  • Support of Affirmative-Action
  • Opposition to Tax Cuts as an Economic Policy
  • Belief in Basic Health Insurance as a Right


Traditional Conservatives

Basic Facts:

  • Make up 16 % of the population
  • Strongly support Bush for re-election: 72%-17%
  • Mostly Republican: 59% Republican, 12% Democrat, 25% Independent, 2% Other
  • Second most likely to vote: 65.6% say they will “definitely be voting.”
  • Support having gone to war with Iraq: 78% support
  • Oppose Gay Marriage: 75% are against gay marriage

Ideology they are driven by:

  • Support Pre-Emptive Strikes
  • Believe Gay Relationships are Morally Wrong
  • Religion Should Play a More Important Role In Government
  • Oppose Affirmative Action
  • Believe in Tax Cuts to Stimulate the Economy


Religious Centrists

Basic Facts:

  • Make up 23% of the population
  • Highest Concentration of blacks and Latinos
  • Support Bush for re-election over Kerry: 51%-34%.
  • Split party identification: 25% Democrat, 31% Republican, 41% Independent
  • Third most likely group to vote: 57.6% will “definitely be voting.”
  • Support having gone to war with Iraq: 60% in favor, 33% oppose
  • Strongly against gay marriage: 61% oppose

Ideologically they are driven by:

  • Support Affirmative Action
  • Support the Environment
  • Believe Gay Marriage is Morally Wrong
  • Believe Religion Should Play a More Important Role in Government


Secular Centrists

Basic Facts:

  • Make up 29% of the population
  • Evenly divided Bush-Kerry: 42% Bush- 41% Kerry
  • As of now, least likely group to vote: 54.8 will definitely be voting
  • Split party ID: 25% Democrat, 21% Republican, 50% Independent, 2% Other
  • Support war in Iraq: 58% strongly or somewhat support
  • Believe gay marriage should be recognized as valid

Ideologically they are driven by:

  • Strongly Support Gay Rights
  • Believe Strongly in Separation of Church and State
  • Less Supportive of Affirmative Action
  • Less Supportive of the Environment
  • Less Likely to Believe in Basic Health Insurance as a Right


Implications for 2004

The Religious Middle and Secular Middle will be in play in the 2004 election. More than half of college students fit in these two categories. Most are planning to vote, though in somewhat lower numbers than Traditional Conservatives or Traditional Liberals. These groups view politics on a distinctly moral spectrum. They agree, by and large, on the issues that fall along the traditional left-right spectrum.

While Kerry is ahead overall, the good news for the Bush campaign is that the swing groups identified in our poll are currently leaning the President’s way. Still, neither side at this point can be said to have either of these groups wrapped up.


III. Conclusion

The 2004 Institute of Politics Spring Survey has found that college students are trending Democratic after some frustration with the Bush Administration and its handling of the war in Iraq, the job market, and its opposition to gay marriage. This dissatisfaction with Bush has pushed college students toward John Kerry, which is indicated by his lead in the head-to-head horse race. Still, the lead Kerry enjoys must be considered soft, as many students do not know enough to rate him as a candidate and could be persuaded to move. The survey also offers a new system for classifying the political ideology of college students into four groups: Traditional Liberals, Traditional Conservatives, Religious Centrists, and Secular Centrists. These last two groups, comprising more than half of college students, are the swing voters in the 2004 election. Both parties could win the college vote if they target and reach out to these voters.


Survey Working Group


Jonathan Chavez, ’05 Chair
Krister Anderson ’07
Paul Davis ’07
Daniel Margolskee ’05
Caitlin Monahan ’06
Leslie Pope ’06
Daniel Yagan ’06
Dan Glickman, Director, Institute of Politics
David King, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Director of Research, Institute of Politics
John Della Volpe, Partner, Schneiders/ Della Volpe/ Schulman
Catherine McLaughlin, Executive Director, Institute of Politics
Andy Solomon, Director of Communications and Strategy, Institute of Politics


About Harvard University’s Institute of Politics

Harvard’s Institute of Politics, located at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, was established in 1966 with an endowment from the John F. Kennedy Library to inspire undergraduate students to enter careers in politics and public service, and to promote greater understanding and cooperation between the academic community and the political world. The Institute has been conducting national political polls of America’s college students for four years.

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