In recent years, college professors with misty memories of their wild youth have often complained about how conservative the new generation is. As Grant Reeher, an associate professor of political science at Syracuse University's Maxwell School, points out, a long-running UCLA survey of American college freshmen shows that, in the '60s, students rated "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" as a far greater priority than "being very well-off financially." Today the rankings of the two are almost perfectly reversed.
That evolution mirrored rightward shifts in the larger culture, but other studies showed that students were even more conservative than the nation at large. Just last year, Harvard's Institute of Politics surveyed undergraduates nationwide and found that, compared to the general public, college students were more likely to give Bush a positive rating, more likely to say they trusted him, and more likely to vote for him in November.
What a difference a year makes.
Yesterday, the Institute of Politics released another survey. Now, it finds, students favor Kerry by 52 percent and Bush by 39 percent, with 8 percent undecided. In 14 swing states, the poll says, Kerry is leading Bush by 17 points among students. The Harvard poll also foresees outsized student turnout on Nov. 2, with over 70 percent saying they "definitely" plan to vote.
Most presidential polls don't account for the possibility of a student surge, because the formula they use to identify "likely voters" counts out people who haven't voted before. "That by definition is not going to do a very good job of picking up on anything that is new and different this election cycle," says Reeher, who co-authored the 2002 book "Click on Democracy: The Internet's Power to Change Political Apathy Into Civic Action." "The youth vote and therefore the amount of Kerry support is being underestimated."
Of course, past hopes that an influx of new voters would render conventional political wisdom obsolete have proved to be wishful thinking. During the primaries, there were plenty of predictions, magnified by the Internet's echo chamber, that new voters galvanized by Howard Dean were going to lead the charge to victory. Greg Strimple, a Republican political strategist and former director of polling for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, says in an e-mail, "Every cycle, stories fly around about what new group is going to vote this year. The fact of the matter is people who vote, vote, and people who don't -- don't." That's why he says he expects all the music industry initiatives to get out the youth vote to "fall on deaf ears (excuse the pun)."
But this year's efforts to turn out the student vote go far beyond rock concerts and celebrity public service announcements. One of the more innovative organizations working to mobilize young progressives is VoteMob, a project of the 21st Century Democrats, which is operating in Ohio, Minnesota, Oregon and Nevada. While many commentators have acknowledged how hard it is to contact and track young people who rely principally on cellphones and live in dorms or short-term apartments, VoteMob is pledging to turn out 65,000 of these hard-to-reach voters in Ohio alone.
"We're building our own list, going to where young voters are at, on campus, at music venues," says Evan Hutchinson, VoteMob's Ohio director. In Ohio, Hutchinson's group, which has 10 full-time staffers and 65 part-timers, has a list of 95,000 young progressive voters -- including their all-important cellphone numbers. Getting them to the polls, he says, "takes good conversation and it takes follow-up. We're going to touch these kids three or four times." On Election Day, VoteMob staffers and volunteers will fan out in student neighborhoods and on campuses, urging kids to vote and showing them the way to the polls.
That, says Reeher, could have a real impact. "One thing we know is that individual contact is very important to getting people involved," he says. "Establishing individual connections is something I think that could really make a difference."