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Oh, Those Liberal College Students!

by Ruy Teixeira

Some people assert that college students these days are conservative–others that they’re liberal. Who’s right? Well, the best way to find out is to ask the college students themselves. Fortunately, that’s just what Harvard’s Institute of Politics (IOP) has been doing since April, 2000, so we actually have some real live data to look at, including their just-released Spring, 2006 survey, which was conducted in the second half of March.

According to the survey, 57 percent say they are liberal or lean liberal, compared to 31 percent who are conservative or lean conservative.

Guess that answers that question. The survey also finds that students give Democrats an 8 point lead on party ID, though a plurality say they are independent or “unaffiliated”. Comparing the independents with the Democrats, however, suggests that the “Indycrat” phenomenon I have identified nationally, where independents and Democrats are quite close to one another and far away from Republicans, also applies to students. For example, when you break down Democrats and independents by IOP’s political typology–which classifies students as either traditional liberals, religious centrists, secular centrists or traditional conservatives–Democrats are 59 percent traditional liberals, 24 percent religious centrists, 9 percent secular centrists and 7 percent traditional conservatives, while independents are 50 percent traditional liberals, 21 percent religious centrists, 16 percent secular centrists and 13 percent traditional conservatives.

Pretty similar. Contrast that to the breakdown among GOP identifiers who are 34 percent traditional conservatives, 30 percent religious centrists, 20 percent secular centrists and 16 percent traditional liberals.

Other findings noted in the survey release include:

College students continue to support a more multilateral U.S. foreign affairs stance and are conflicted over unilateral action to prevent nuclear weapons development, including in Iran. Nearly three out of four college students (72%) believe the United States should let other countries and the United Nations take the lead in solving international crises and conflicts, nearly identical to Spring 2005 IOP poll findings (74%). Students also struggle over the U.S. role in the development of nuclear weapons. More students say they are unsure (37%) over whether the United States should stop the development of nuclear weapons in other countries, even if it requires unilateral military action, than those who either agree (33%) or disagree (31%). An identical number (37%) are equally unsure when asked specifically about the U.S. intervening in Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.

More than seven in ten students believe the United States should withdraw some or all U.S. troops from Iraq. Sixty percent (60%) of college students believe the United States should begin to withdraw troops from Iraq, a twenty point increase from six months ago (40% - Fall 2005 IOP poll). However, only twelve percent (12%) of college students now believe the United States should withdraw all troops from Iraq - a ten point drop from Fall 2005 IOP polling (22%).....

President Bush’s approval rating still dropping, as students continue to feel the country is on the wrong track. Only one-third (33%) of college students say they approve of the job George W. Bush is doing as President, down eight points from this past fall. Following recent trends, students also continue to feel the country is on the “wrong track” rather than headed in the right direction. Fifty-eight percent (58% - an identical number to the fall 2005 IOP poll) believe the country is on the “wrong track,” while only thirty-percent (30%) believe the country is headed in the “right direction,” down five points from October 2005.

There’s much more in the survey release and full report and I urge you to check them out. These analyses can also be fruitfully read in conjunction with a couple of other recent reports on the overall age group that contains these students: Anna Greenberg’s study, OMG: How Generation Y is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era, conducted for Reboot; and Magid Associates’ study, “The Politics of the Millennial Generation”, conducted for the New Politics Institute (see especially the section on “transition millennials”, who are 18-22). Both studies confirm that the broader age group that contains the college students studied by IOP is quite progressive in almost every way, as well as documenting this age group’s complicated attitudes toward religion, morality, civic life and the political process (also a theme of the IOP analysis).

Of course, there's no guarantee IOP’s college students and Gen Y adults in general will stay as progressive as they are now--change is possible (but much less likely after the age of 30 which is not so far away for the leading edge of this generation).

But they're off to a good start! Their current progressive views can only make those on the center-left smile. And the conservative Establishment in Washington scowl.