University of Rochester

College Students Mobilized, Got Engaged, and Backed Kerry in 2004

November 30, 2004

A hallmark of the 2004 election was a historic high youth voter turnout, and college students led the way with 77 percent of them going to the polls. College students chose John Kerry over George W. Bush by 55 to 41 percent, but there wasn’t a big shift in party identification, as the same percentage of college students as all voters, 37 percent, called themselves Democrats. Kerry won the college vote because Independent college students preferred him by 62 to 27 percent.

These were among the key findings of the first national post-election survey of college students designed by Professor Richard G. Niemi of the University of Rochester and Professor Michael Hanmer of Georgetown University. The poll of 1,200 college students also found that mobilization was high, with almost half being contacted by a political party and a college group. Nearly nine in 10 followed the election closely and a similar share thought voting was easy. Two-thirds voted at home instead of on campus. There also were sharp differences in candidate preferences by college major.

The survey was conducted by John Della Volpe, whose firm Schneiders/Della Volpe/Schulman questioned students the week after the election, with the assistance of David King of Harvard University. It is among only a few studies of college students that include students living both on and off campus. The funding was provided by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE).

Among the survey’s findings:

High turnout. Seventy-seven percent of the college students surveyed said they voted. According to CIRCLE’s analysis of national exit poll data and vote tallies, approximately 42 percent of all 18-to-24 year olds voted, up from 36.5 percent in 2000, and 52 percent of 18-to-29 year olds voted, up from 42 percent four years ago. In recent years, college students have been nearly twice as likely to vote as young people who do not attend college, CIRCLE researchers said.

Majors matter. While a majority of college students voted for Kerry, his support varied by field of study. Sixty-six percent of arts and humanities majors and 63 percent of social science majors voted for Kerry. Bush had the strongest support among students of education (51 percent), the sciences (46 percent), and business (46 percent).

Heavy mobilization. Efforts to mobilize youth in the 2004 campaign went beyond celebrity appeals and included intensive grassroots work, both partisan and nonpartisan. Almost half (47 percent) of all students—and 57 percent of those who attend college in a “battleground” state—said they were contacted by a political party during the campaign. Of those contacted, 56 percent voted for Kerry, while 39 percent voted for Bush. Close to half (46 percent) said they were encouraged by their college or a group at their college to register.

“Research shows that young people tend to participate when they’re asked, and that’s exactly what happened on college campuses this year,” said CIRCLE Director William A. Galston.

“College students tend to be interested in politics and are an easily identifiable population,” said Hanmer, assistant professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown. “The results provide strong evidence that college students were considered valuable allies of the political parties, especially in the most contested states.”

Students participated. Sixty-two percent said that they had encouraged or helped someone else to vote. That’s nearly double the roughly one-third of all voters who said they had tried to influence someone else’s vote in 2000, according to the National Election Study.

Students listened. More than 85 percent said they followed the presidential election very or somewhat closely. Nearly three-quarters said they talked about politics at least once a week. By way of comparison, the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) survey of college freshmen found that 22.4 percent discussed politics weekly in 2003, and that was an increase compared to 2002, following two decades of decline.

Few poll problems. In general, college students said they had little difficulty voting. Nearly 90 percent (88.8 percent) said they found it “very easy” or “fairly easy” both to obtain and to cast an absentee ballot. Fewer than one in 25 (3.6 percent) said they tried to register but were unable to.

“Our results suggest that students overall had remarkably few problems,” said Niemi, the Don Alonzo Watson Professor of Political Science at Rochester. “Of course, even a few problems are more than one would like. Nonetheless, the image of large numbers of students being prevented from voting (by the difficulties encountered or in reality) appears to be a gross exaggeration.”

Hometown voting. Of those who were registered, two-thirds are registered in their hometown. Though turnout was high overall, turnout among those who registered at home and did not change their place of registration was more than 7 percentage points lower than turnout among those who registered for the first time at their school address and those who switched their registration from their home address to their school address.

Moral issues. College students were divided about the most important issue, but more (26 percent) cited “moral values issues, such as gay marriage and abortion” than chose any other issue. A similar 22 percent of all Americans chose “moral values” as their top issue in the exit polls. College students who were concerned about moral issues preferred Bush over Kerry by 60 percent to 37 percent.

The situation in Iraq (22 percent), the economy (18 percent), and terrorism (15 percent) followed as the next most important issues for college students. For all voters, the most important issues after “moral values” were the economy (20 percent), terrorism (19 percent), and Iraq (15 percent). College voters were less concerned about health care (3 percent) and taxes (2 percent) compared to older voters and young voters who are not in college.

Phone interviews were conducted with 1,200 college students, including those living on-campus, off-campus, and at home. Interviews were conducted between Nov. 9 and 19. The margin of error for this survey is ±2.8 percent at the 95 percent confidence interval, but is higher for subgroups. These results are preliminary and subject to adjustments after weighting.

CIRCLE ( is a national source of impartial, nonpartisan, and comprehensive data, research, and analysis on the civic engagement of young people. It is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and Carnegie Corporation of New York, and housed at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.