US students feel the pull of polls after years of apathy

June 6, 2003

US university students seem increasingly inclined to vote, reversing years of apathy, according to a Harvard University study. And there are so many of them that they could influence the outcome of next year's presidential election.

Nearly 60 per cent of undergraduates say they will "definitely" vote next year, double the proportion who went to the polls in the last presidential race, according to Harvard's Institute of Politics. And support for President George W. Bush is about evenly split with support for whichever Democrat opposes him.

These students "can be the key swing group of the 2004 elections if the campaigns and the candidates for office properly engage them", said Dan Glickman, the institute's director and a former cabinet secretary and congressman. "This is an enormous reservoir of potential voters and volunteers, almost 10 million strong, who can be channelled to winning campaigns if they are nurtured."

Candidates who ignore this group, he said, "risk losing their elections".

This also assumes that the student will follow through with their statement and actually vote. In 2000, barely one-third did.

In the survey of 1,200 undergraduates, the students are split in their party affiliation. Twenty-nine per cent identify themselves as Democrats and 26 per cent as Republicans, with the rest unaffiliated. Also, 61 per cent of students say they approve of the job President Bush is doing, about one-third say they will vote to re-elect President Bush, while the same percentage say they will vote for whoever runs against him. That is considerably less support than the president enjoys among the general population.

Unlike their Vietnam-era predecessors, however, most American university students are hawkish. Two-thirds of students surveyed say they supported the war in Iraq.

That sentiment was also in evidence at the commencement of Rockford College in Illinois, where a speaker who had written that the US was an occupying force in Iraq rather than a liberating one was forced off the stage by booing and shouting students and their family members and the power to his microphone was cut.

The speaker, New York Times reporter Chris Hedges, said his remarks would cover the topic of imperialism, prompting several students to turn their backs on him and others in the audience to sing God Bless America.

He cut his speech short at the request of security officers, and was taken from the campus.

Mr Hedges said he was saddened by the response. The school's president, Paul Pribbenow, blamed the disruption mainly on audience members rather than students or faculty.

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