Washington Nine million strong, the highly volatile college-student population is up for grabs in the race for the presidency in 2004.
According to a poll released Wednesday by Harvard University's Institute of Politics, college students are generally supportive of President Bush, and they lean slightly Republican in political persuasion -- a contrast to the common stereotype of radical campus liberals.
But while 46 percent of students agree that the country is on the right track, they remain politically conflicted. In the past year, their trust in the president declined as concerns grew about Iraq. They aren't oblivious to the world around them, the poll suggests; instead, they are worried about the state of the economy and about finding jobs. And today's students aren't political "slackers"; they say they are poised to become active in the 2004 election -- if asked.
"Most campaigns are geared toward voters with an immediate economic stake in the election," said Dan Glickman, director of Harvard University's Institute of Politics and a former U.S. agriculture secretary and Kansas congressman. "Young people don't have a voting track record, and the regular way of campaigning often misses this group."
More than two-thirds of the students surveyed are registered to vote -- and eight in 10 said they would cast a vote in 2004. As a whole, 18- to 24-year-olds are less than half as likely to vote as college students. Perhaps surprisingly, 31 percent of college students identify themselves as Republicans, while 27 percent call themselves Democrats and 38 percent independent or unaffiliated.
"College campuses aren't a hotbed of liberalism anymore," Glickman said. "It's a different world."
A handful of KU students interviewed Wednesday night on Massachusetts Street said they weren't quite ready to commit to candidates for an election that still was more than a year away.
"It's too early," said Lauren Brown, an Omaha, Neb., senior. "I'm a Democrat, but I haven't thought much about it."
Andy McCallie isn't sure who he will support but it won't be Bush.
"I'll be opposite of Bush -- mainly because of the Iraq war," the Stilwell sophomore said.
Also undecided is Frank Lindemann, a Topeka sophomore.
"I'm starting to think about it (politics) a little more," Lindemann said. "Maybe I'll decide after my political science class."
Sixty-one percent of students approve of Bush's performance on the job -- higher than the president's overall national approval ratings, which have dipped in recent months and now stand at only 50 percent in a poll released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.
Even so, about one-third of college students report that their trust in Bush has declined in the past year. Eighty-seven percent of students, including 70 percent of Republicans, say members of the Bush administration have been "hiding some things" or "mostly not telling the truth" about the situation in Iraq.
On the economy, students are more optimistic about their long-term future than their short-term job opportunities. While nearly three-quarters of college students expect to be better off financially than their parents, 71 percent of all undergraduates and 80 percent of upperclassmen expressed concern about finding a job when they graduate.
Despite their mixed views of Bush, 81 percent think their vote will make a difference in the next presidential election, and more than 90 percent disagree with this statement: "It doesn't matter who the president is."
Although they lean toward Bush now, the poll showed that the votes of the college contingent are still uncommitted. Bush squeezed by an unnamed Democratic candidate by only five points, and 18 percent said they were still undecided.
"Young people aren't a ready-made group of voters, and they're looking for someone to talk to them, not at them," Glickman said.
Complete results of the poll are available online at www.iop.harvard.edu.
The Harvard survey results are based on telephone interviews conducted with 1,202 college undergraduates Oct. 3-12. The margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 2.8 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.
The Pew survey was of 1,515 adults, taken Oct. 15-19, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.