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Student Political Interest Growing

New IOP survey finds increased youth participation in last election

Not the apathetic undergraduates envisioned by some, college students are more politically informed and engaged than common perceptions would allow, according to a survey released yesterday by Harvard’s Institute of Politics (IOP).

The report is one of 12 surveys put out by a team of undergraduates, IOP staff, and a professional polling company over the past five years. In the latest poll, the team conducted telephone interviews during March and April with 1,206 college students from across the nation, drawn randomly from a student database.

The report recounted an increase in youth participation during the last presidential election.

According to national exit polls, turnout among voters 18-24 was at 42.3 percent, up 5.8 percentage points since 2000. This number is likely even higher when college students that voted absentee are included.

The IOP report found that a quarter of all students contributed either time or money to a campaign and—as 17 percent of all eligible voters—represented a larger percentage of the constituency than seniors over 65, who followed at 16 percent.

Voters aged 18-24 were the only age group to support Kerry over Bush in the 2004 election, favoring Kerry with 56 percent of vote to Bush’s 43 percent.

In addition to questions about the last election, the survey looked at student opinion on issues including Social Security and the war on Iraq.

“In terms of pressing issues facing our country, [students] are actively engaged...They have strong feelings on this issue,” said Esten Perez, director of communications for the IOP.

The survey found that a full 70 percent of college students do not believe that Social Security will be able to provide benefits for them when they retire, and 63 percent doubt that Social Security will be able to provide for their parents. They also favor private accounts more than the general public, according to a press release from the IOP.

“Students are actually very nervous about Social Security,” said Krister B. Anderson ’07, who helped design the survey.

Findings also revealed that a majority of students now oppose the war in Iraq. While in April 2003, 39 percent of students opposed the war, that number jumped to 53 percent by this month.

“What I think this survey shows is that the worldview of college students is at dramatic odds with Washington and the current administration when it comes to foreign policy. They are less supportive of the war in Iraq than they have ever been,” said Perez.

Thirty-six percent “conditionally support the U.S. working to spread freedom and democracy across the world,” according to the survey, but support fell to 13 percent when spreading democracy involved significant U.S. casualties. Seventy-four percent of students polled also believe that the U.S. should let other countries and the U.N. take the lead in solving international conflicts.

“We termed the [pollees] the global generation because students are more willing to work in a multilateral environment,” said Anderson.

The IOP is currently the only organization polling undergraduates nationwide, and Anderson stressed the need for greater awareness of student opinion.

“We’re the only group doing this kind of polling and working with undergraduates to come up with questions,” he said. “That is the most important thing we can do—show politicians that this is an important constituency that understands the issues and is going to vote.”

—Staff writer Allison A. Frost can be reached at afrost@fas.harvard.edu.