Will Young Voters Engage in Higher Numbers Next Year?
Student Project Surveys College Students' Interest in Campaign 2008

A Project by American University Students
Thursday, November 29, 2007 9:02 AM

Election year after election year in recent decades, candidates and the media have spent significant energy courting young voters and reporting on how they view issues and campaigns. Yet, year after year, voting data shows that the turnout of young voters has been disappointingly low.

That may be changing, as census and survey data shows that youth turnout began to rise in the 2004 and 2006 elections. This year, with young people saying in preliminary polls that the 2008 presidential campaign is an important election and with the increased role of the Internet in political organizing, the question is whether young people will translate their energy and enthusiasm to the ballot box.

In an attempt to shed light on young voters' interest in the 2008 campaign, the Politics and the Media class at American University interviewed 108 college students online from October 19 to 29, 2007. Ninety-six percent of the sample said they were going to vote in the 2008 presidential election.

And, with a year left until the election, about 82 percent said they were already registered to vote. This continues the trend that began with the 2004 election. Forty-seven percent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted in the 2004 election, up 11 points from 2000, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement. A June 2007 study of Census Department data found that the turnout rate for 18-29 year olds went from 22.5 percent in 2002 to 25 percent in the 2006 midterm elections, still lower than that the turnout rate for all ages but moving in the right direction.

Students from 75 colleges around the country responded to the American University students' online interviews.

A female senior from Bates College stressed the importance of getting out the vote. "I think voting is a privilege that many Americans take for granted," she said. "And as we have seen in recent elections every vote matters."

The final panel's political make-up was decidedly liberal (48 percent of the sample), with another 34 percent identifying themselves as moderates. Only 20 percent of the respondents identified themselves as conservatives. (An April 2007 survey of college students by Harvard University's Institute of Politics showed college students as a whole are more liberal than the population, with 51 percent calling themselves liberal or moderately liberal, 16 percent self-identified as moderate and 33 percent as conservative or moderately conservative.)

This difference was reflected when the students were asked to name which presidential candidate they would vote for if the election were held today. The students were not provided with a list candidate names. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was the most popular candidate with 27 percent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) followed with support from 18 percent of the students; Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (D) was the only other Democratic candidate named by the respondents, earning 5 percent.

Obama supporters cited the Illinois senator's honesty and a perceived ability to tackle the issues if elected.

"I like [Obama] because he seems to want to hold people accountable for their actions," said a senior at the University of California-Berkeley who asked that her name be withheld, when asked who would get her vote.

Among Republican candidates, Rudy Giuliani led with 6 percent of the students' support, followed closely by Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul with 5 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

Interviewing Methods

Interested in finding out what's really on in college students' minds with the onset of the 2008 campaign, a group of students at American University in Washington, D.C., in cooperation with washingtonpost.com, conducted online interviews with a panel of more than 100 college students across the nation. Students voiced their thoughts on issues such as the war in Iraq, privacy and surveillance, presidential candidates, media, social issues and more.

The fall 2007 semester Politics and the Media class, taught by Jane Hall, associate professor of journalism, met with Jon Cohen, polling director for The Washington Post, for initial discussions on the project and for guidance scripting questions. Working in consultation with AU professor Dotty Lynch, executive-in-residence in the School of Communication and political consultant for CBS News, and Maria Ivancin, assistant professor of public communication and expert on survey research, Hall's students spent several weeks identifying issues of interest to students and crafting their questions for their online interviews.

The students looked at the issues prominent in the media and their personal experiences with politics to choose the questions for the survey. Students examined polls by The Washington Post and other news organizations in creating their questions. A series of questions about national security versus privacy was drawn from a Harris poll on the subject.

Students were interviewed online via e-mail and a Web-based survey application. A total of 150 students were contacted, with 108 responding. Each of the 25 members of the politics and media class was responsible for choosing and distributing the survey to six students. The panel, ages 18-24, was chosen with measures taken to be roughly proportionate to the 2004 census of college students in regards to ethnicity, gender and geographic region. The panel came from more than 75 U.S. colleges and universities, from California to Vermont and all major regions in between.

The survey was not designed to be representative of the opinions of all college students, and the results are not generalizable beyond the 108 students interviewed.

Of the 89 students who answered the question about gender, 43 were female and 45 were male. The regional breakdown of respondents overall was: Northeast, 26 (24 percent); Southeast, 17 (16 percent); Midwest, 23 (21 percent); Southwest, 6 (6 percent), West, 12 (11 percent); International, 2 (2 percent); None or did not respond, 22 (20 percent). Of the 92 students who indicated their ethnicity, the breakdown was: White, 76 percent; hispanic, 8 percent; African American, 4 percent; Asian, 8 percent; Other, 4 percent.

Students in Professor Hall's class analyzed the results and wrote these stories about their survey.

The Issues

Survey respondents ranked the war in Iraq as the most important issue facing both the country and themselves personally. When asked "In your opinion, what are the two most important issues facing the United States today?" students largely responded Iraq and the war, which received about 42 percent of responses.

Next, students were asked, "In your opinion, what are the two most important issues in politics facing you personally today?" The results were varied over more responses than the previous question, but again Iraq and the war received the highest number, about 12 percent. Education tied for the most important issue, also receiving about 12 percent.

The respondents recognized the large effect the Iraq war will have on their generation.

"I feel that the biggest effect the war in Iraq has had on our generation is that we have gained perspective on what people really think of America," said Matthew Rutkowski, a senior at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. "I feel that many of us know we are not seen as the greatest country in the world anymore, and for some of us, we are humbled by this."

Many respondents said they do not think their generation fully understands the impact of the war, whether it is thinking apathetically about the war or feeling above it.

"[We have] a certain numbness towards war. We live now in a day and age in which we receive news of casualties with, no pun intended, a casual manner," said Michael Sullivan, a freshman at Benedictine College. "People, innocent or not, are being killed every single day. And we are trained to be numb to it. It only contributes to an ever-decreasing respect for life."

That "numbness" does not change for many, despite the length of the Iraq conflict and the growing number of U.S. casualties, until someone they directly know is a causality of the war.

"I always thought the war was a bad idea, but having a friend there personalized it," said Laiah Idelson, a junior at American University. "Then someone from my high school who I was not friends with was killed there, and that brought the war to my community. Unfortunately it seems that people need to have the war come to them in order to care. I think the troops should come home and America needs to recognize its mistake. I thought this before my friend went, but it is a more urgent thought now that he's there."

Those who have served in Iraq gave a very different perspective of the war. "Undoubtedly, not only do I know people that have served, I too have served twice in Iraq," said Brandon Frazier, a sophomore at American University. "While there I had no knowledge, or opportunity to gain knowledge, of what was truly going on in the country I was fighting in. Now being back in the U.S. and out of the Marine Corps I feel that there have been many mistakes in the made by the Administration in Iraq."

Other respondents expressed concern that the Iraq war was distracting policymakers from tackling problems in the United States.

"The war in Iraq is the beginning of the deterioration of our homeland," said Matt B. Cohen, a senior at Rider University. "Important domestic issues have been ignored in favor of fighting a vague, undefeatable opponent, such as terrorism and dictatorships."

Students also responded to questions on their views on social issues, specifically same-sex marriage and reproductive rights. Overall, respondents considered themselves to be supporters of abortion rights (about 50 percent), with about 27 percent of the respondents identifying themselves as being opposed to abortion. But students said it was only somewhat important (about 46 percent) if the presidential candidate disagreed with his or her views on reproductive rights.

Respondents greatly favored same-sex marriage at about 76 percent, but again only said it was somewhat important, about 45 percent, if the candidate for president disagreed with his or her views.

The environment was the only response in that series of questions that students said it was very important if the president disagreed with his or her views, about 51 percent.

Recently, political debate over health care and possible reforms to the systems has increased. The surveyed students overwhelmingly said, with about 81 percent, health care is an important issue to them personally. About 84 percent of respondents then said the number of uninsured people in the United States is an important issue personally.

"I am an aspiring physician, so health care is very important for me," said a male senior biology major at Duke University who asked that his name be withheld. "Costs are too high, coverage is too limited, and prevention is too underemphasized. Republicans' constant reference to a fear of 'socialized medicine' has in recent years prevented any kind of health care reform that can really help Americans."

But not all respondents thought health care should be revamped.

"This is the land of opportunity, not entitlement," said a male senior political science major at Johns Hopkins University who did not wish to be identified further. "The government should stay out of health care. ... The current programs are good, but they should be privatized so the taxpayers' money does not go to that."


The American University Politics and the Media Class is made up of 25 upperclassmen studying in the university's School of Communication and School of Public Affairs. They are Hannah Bergman, Chris Billeter, Maggie Brink, Tim Caron, Cory Conzemius, Cait Douglas, Roddy Flynn, Kendra Garstka, Sarah Hord, Katie LaPotin, Brian Levine, Sarah Mathews, Cate Minichino, Sidney Olinyk, Daniel Pineda, Norma Porter, Alexander Rony, Melissa Rosenberg, Sam Roth, Bettina Sferrino, Kate Stasik, Kate Sullivan, Marc Tomik, Andrew Violante, and Stacia Young.

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