Students lean to Kerry but identify as independents, study finds
By Kevin Garland, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, April 20, 2004
Sen. John Kerry is running laps around President George W. Bush in the college-aged arena, according to a study by the Harvard Institute of Politics, whose recent poll credited Kerry with a 10 percent lead over Bush.
In a survey of 1,205 students at colleges and universities nationwide, 48 percent of students chose Kerry and 38 percent chose Bush when asked how they would vote if the election were tomorrow.
At the same time, 41 percent of the same students identified themselves as independent or unaffiliated with a political party. The data suggests that students are less interested in political party boundaries, but still remain liberal in their voting preferences, campus political leaders speculated.
"Even though these college students say they are independent, they are more likely to lean liberal," Young Democrats President Lis Smith '05 said. "If you look at the past primary season, there are a lot of students who identify as independents and were going out helping all the different campaigns."
Smith added that many college students who tend to identify themselves as independents aren't "true independents," and do in fact vote along party lines.
College Republicans officials said they felt differently, attributing the surge in Kerry's popularity is due to intense media focus on the recent primary elections.
"For one thing, the Democratic primary created a lot of press, a lot of media for the Democrats. Republicans have not yet begun our most vigorous defense of the president," New Hampshire College Republicans Chairman Tory Fodder '05 said. "I think once you get more of a balance in the dialogue, you will find public opinion to shift."
However, Bush has some tough numbers to overcome among college-aged potential voters. His approval ratings have taken a dive since October, when 61 percent of college-aged students approved of the way Bush was handling his job -- the President's approval numbers have fallen to 47 percent, with 45 percent disapproving.
Dartmouth College Republicans President Jesse Roisin '05 said he believes that polls show little, especially this far before the fall election.
"Look at Howard Dean with his polls," he said, referencing Dean's rapid slide in popularity during the primaries.
Fodder agreed, noting "As college Republicans in New Hampshire, we're a lot more concerned about numbers in November than a report that Harvard, the bastion of fair and balanced politics, wants to release months in advance."
Linda Fowler, director of the Rockefeller Center, echoed this wait-and-see outlook.
"I wouldn't read much into the numbers at this stage in the campaign," she said.
The question remains, however: Why are so many self-identified independent voters choosing Kerry over Bush at this point in the campaign process?
"A vote for John Kerry isn't necessarily a vote for Kerry, but a vote against Bush," Smith said, underscoring the sentiment among many respondents, according to the Institute of Politics.
"George W. Bush has been the most conservative president in modern times and a lot of people see him as beholden to business interests and the religious right," Smith said.
Much is at stake in this election, Smith said, calling Bush a "very polarizing president," who caused people uninterested in the Democratic party to vote against him.
Even the numbers in the Institute of Politics survey indicate that approval of Kerry is marginal compared to his support for election. Fifty-seven percent of respondents only rated Kerry as "somewhat favorable" and another 21 percent "recognize his name but cannot rate."
Roisin commented, "John Kerry hasn't got much support for who he is. He's somebody who almost ... has to do the job. He got selected by default."
Smith predicted that "Democrats will use the 'anything but Bush' kind of slogan when it comes to November," referencing the possibility that the Democratic party might reach out to the young voters surveyed by the Institute of Politics.
"The most important thing is that a lot of these independents are turning to Kerry as a vote against Bush," Smith said.