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Inside Politics

Poll: College students moving toward Kerry

Harvard survey shows politics huge on campuses

By Michael Ludden

Iowa State University students check out the Rock the Vote bus this week on their Ames, Iowa, campus.
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Interactive: College poll findings

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Are the presidential candidates paying enough attention to issues that affect young voters?
Harvard University
George W. Bush
John F. Kerry
America Votes 2004

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- College students say they are much more interested in politics this year, more likely to identify with a party and more likely to vote, a new Harvard University study shows.

And it appears a majority of those responding to the survey intend to vote for Sen. John Kerry.

The Harvard University Institute of Politics surveyed students across the country in October.

The institute began tracking students' political leanings in 2000. Since then, there have been some remarkable changes.

But first, the findings:

  • The 10-point lead that Kerry held over President Bush in a March survey has grown to 13 percent.
  • While Bush's support among students has remained consistent, many undecided voters have moved into the Kerry camp.
  • In swing states, Kerry's lead is even higher, about 16 percent. Swing-state students also are saying they are more likely to vote than students in non-swing states.
  • Women are far more likely to support Kerry. The race is about even among males.
  • Students are divided in the way they rank the candidates' personal attributes. Bush, for example, scores higher on "takes a clear stand on issues." Kerry ranks higher on "understands the problems of people like you."
  • More students believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. And support for the war is slipping.
  • David King, associate director of Harvard's Institute of Politics, said the intensity of feeling among students is significant.

    "The energy level is way up, and cynicism is way down. Students are choosing sides now," King said.

    More often than not, the side they choose is Kerry's. About 52 percent of students say they would vote for Kerry today, compared with 39 percent for Bush. (Chart: Voter Preferences)

    While 87 percent of college students say they are registered to vote today, King says that number can't be trusted.

    "It's self-reported. But it's also true that the [registration] levels appear to be much higher."

    Look for a big turnout

    The National Center for Education Statistics estimates there are more than 10.2 million students enrolled at four-year schools this year.

    King predicts more than half of them will vote in the presidential election, a significant increase from a turnout of about 42 percent in 2000.

    Curtis Gans also expects a big jump in student voting.

    Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a Washington nonprofit research institute, has spent decades studying American voting trends.

    Gans said he expects 40 percent to 45 percent of students will vote, which he says would be "a very good turnout."

    "It's a very emotional election. I think there will be a substantial bump in student voting," he said. "And that probably benefits Kerry."

    The Harvard study suggests female students are a major part of Kerry's support on campus, with 58 percent of women supporting Kerry and 34 percent supporting Bush. (Chart: Gender Gap)

    "Women just don't like Bush's personality," King said. "Among men, Kerry tied Bush for 'has an appealing personality.' Among women, it was 51 to 35 for Kerry."

    Nevertheless, 44 percent of students say they expect Bush to win, with 34 percent predicting a Kerry win, according to the survey.

    There also were substantial differences among college men and women on which issues were most important. For men, the economy was first, followed by terrorism and Iraq.

    For women, the most important question was moral values, followed by Iraq and the economy.

    Once those responses were merged, the economy ranked first.

    "We consistently found students worried about the economy," said King, a lecturer at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

    Really paying attention

    Students are enormously interested in politics right now, at a level not seen since the September 11 attacks, and they believe it is highly relevant to their lives, King said.

    "Before 9/11, presidential politics was what we watched on 'West Wing.' Now we have a real reality show," he said.

    Significantly, he said, that political consciousness "sets a pattern for the rest of their lives."

    And they are affiliating with a party. Students who labeled themselves independents fell from 41 percent in March to 33 percent in October. About 34 percent of students are Democrats and about 29 percent are Republicans. (Chart: Party Affiliation)

    On the other hand, students can change their minds. In earlier rounds of the Harvard polling, about 19 percent of students who had made a choice changed their allegiance between March and July.

    In swing states, students were more likely to say they had been contacted by someone asking them to register, more likely to plan to vote and more likely to say they would vote for Kerry.

    Gans said students, like adults, are more likely to vote "in a place where you think your vote would make a difference."

    And it is all driven, he says, "by the lightning rod called George Bush."

    The study shows today's college students have more energy and enthusiasm and a higher moral tone and conservative nature than many of their parents.

    "This group is more in tune with a religious life than previous generations," King said. "It's a remarkable shift toward religiosity; 35 percent consider themselves to be born again. They've gone from the 'me' generation to the 'we' generation."

    And they are more likely to have faith in the candidates.

    Four years ago, the number of college students who believed that politicians are motivated by selfish reasons was 27 percent, the Harvard research showed.

    It fell to 20 percent two years ago and stands at 12 percent today.

    "That's an absolute sea change," King said.

    The institute conducted the telephone survey October 7-13 of about 1,200 students at 210 four-year colleges nationwide, taken from a list of more than 5 million students. The study has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

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