By Carl Weiser
The Cincinnati Enquirer
WASHINGTON - Many of the nation's college students, who six months ago were more supportive of President Bush than the rest of the country, now are backing Sen. John Kerry for president, a poll released Thursday shows.
Todd Barnes, president of the University of Cincinnati College Republicans, says President Bush leads on national security issues that students will care about on Election Day, even if he trails among them in a recent poll.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/MICHAEL E. KEATING
The war in Iraq, a lousy job market and the president's stance against gay marriage have alienated college students, according to the poll from the Harvard University Institute of Politics.
The poll found 48 percent of students supporting Kerry, 38 percent for Bush and 5 percent for Ralph Nader.
"A lot of students are holding something of a grudge, or resentment, toward the war in Iraq," said Adriane McKenney, executive editor of The Hornet Tribune, student newspaper at Alabama State University in Montgomery. "They feel a war was unnecessary."
But Todd Barnes, president of the University of Cincinnati College Republicans, predicted Bush's numbers would rebound as the election draws nearer. Barnes, of Harrison, pointed out that the poll came in the weeks following the Super Tuesday primaries in which Democrats and Kerry dominated the news.
"A lot of us have friends and family members who are in the armed forces. We support those folks," Barnes said. "We understand that if John Kerry is elected, the consequences would be detrimental. ... College students will see that the safety of our nation, of our communities, relies on a strong national security policy. President Bush is already taking the lead on those issues."
The nation's 9 million college students make up only about 4.5 percent of the voting-age population. Even among 18- to 24-year-olds, they're a slight minority.
But they might make a difference this year. The poll showed 62 percent of college students say they will definitely vote, a number the poll authors expect to go up as Election Day nears. In October 2000, only 50 percent of college students said they would vote.
"This is the first post-9-11 election, and that really is the critical moment for our generation," said Caitlin Monahan, a Harvard sophomore from Wallingford, Conn., who helped design the poll.
"Our bubble was shattered," said Jonathan Chavez, another Harvard student, from Carrollton, Texas. "It doesn't affect whether you're conservative or liberal, just whether you'll care about politics."
The poll showed college students' support for the Iraq war has fallen and now matches the views of the general public. Two in three of the students believe it will be hard to find a job after graduation. And 57 percent support gay marriage - almost the opposite of what their older counterparts believe, according to many polls.
Kerry has been actively courting college voters. He spent the week speaking on college campuses, did a conference call with student newspapers and promised to make college more affordable.
The Harvard poll was based on a national random sample of 1,205 college students interviewed by phone March 12-23. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
Kerry may have a 10-point lead over President Bush, but many college students don't know much about him. Almost four in 10 didn't know who he was or know enough about him to have an opinion. "It's more a 'no' vote for Bush than a 'yes' vote for Kerry," Monahan said.
The top issue for college students is the war in Iraq and terrorism, followed by social issues such as education and gay marriage and then the economy.
Liberal and conservative labels don't apply as much anymore, and the students don't like to be seen as Democratic or Republican. The poll identified two key groups: religious centrists, who believe religion should play a larger role in government and are concerned with the nation's moral direction; and secular centrists, who are more libertarian.
"They are in some important ways repulsed by the extremism of the parties," said David King, Institute of Politics research director.
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