Student political ideology shifts from right to left

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April 23, 2010

4:56 AM

A campus survey focusing on students’s political attitudes and involvement conducted by government professor Ron Rapoport suggests that students at the College of William and Mary have shifted strongly to the left from a Republican base over the last 30 years.

Rapoport and the government department first conducted a survey of the student body in 1977.

That year, 40 percent of the survey’s respondents identified themselves as Republicans, while 29 percent affiliated themselves with the Democratic party. Of that sample, 24 percent were strong Republicans, while only 6 percent strong Democrats.

“Even by ’80, we were still pretty Republican,” Rapoport said.

By 1984, 26 percent of students at the College identified as Democrats, while 42 percent were Republicans.

“This, of course, is after Reagan comes in, and after the Carter failure,” Rapoport said. “You only had 10 percent strong Democrats and 17 percent strong Republicans. It really is pretty amazing. Interestingly, in spite of that, these kids were more Republican than their parents in 1984.”

Today, 36 percent of the student body describes itself as Democrats, while only 16 percent identifies with the Republican party. 17 percent are strong Democrats, while only 6 percent are strong Republicans.

Of students who voted in the last presidential election, 69 percent said that they voted for Democratic candidate Barack Obama, while 29 percent said they voted for Republican candidate John McCain.

Former president Ronald Reagan had similar support from students of the College in 1984. Over 66 percent voted for Reagan, while approximately 34 percent voted for his Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale.

“It’s about two to one,” Rapoport said. “Reagan wins big in that year.”

Rapoport said more students trust the government to do the right thing today than they did in 1984. Forty percent of students responded that the government can be trusted “most of the time” or “always,” while 55 percent said the government can be trusted “sometimes.”

The results for the student sample seem to strongly contrast national sentiment. A survey by the Pew Research Center released last Sunday reported that only 22 percent of Americans trust the government “just about always” or “most of the time.”

The current student response differs from the student body’s trust in government 26 years ago, when 23 percent of respondents said the government could be trusted to do the right thing most of the time or always, and 76 percent said the government could only be trusted sometimes.

Government professor Christopher Howard said the Watergate Scandal and Reagan’s election may explain the decreasing level of trust many Americans have in the present.

“[Watergate was] the first trigger in continuing the decline in trust in government and pushing many people away from the Republican party,” Howard said. “[Reagan’s election gave] Republicans new life fairly shortly after the whole Watergate [scandal and was] a testament to the frustration people had to Carter.”

Howard said that contemporary students organized more on issue-specific grounds rather than along party lines, but that there has been more of an interest in getting students participating in elections.

“One of the things that has remained fairly constant since I’ve been here is that neither the campus Democrats, nor the campus Republicans, have been a very large presence,” Howard said.

Howard suggests that the focal issues to students have been changing, with the exception of the environmental issues, which have remained important.

“Back in the ’90s, I remember a few pretty small-scale student protests against affirmative action,” Howard said. “Those have become really uncommon lately.”

Rapoport has only noticed a shift in specific issues.

“Is homosexuality immoral? It flips, pretty much evenly [from 1984],” he said. “National health insurance — it’s much more evenly divided [in 1976] than you would find now.”

Rapoport said the data suggests the issues have aligned more closely to party affiliation.

“The Republican Party in 1980 was more liberal on abortion than Democrats,” Rapoport said. “The interesting thing would be the degree to which people who are anti-abortion are now heavily Republican. It’s not just that the student body became more liberal on abortion. It could be, it became more linked to party politics. Before, being liberal on abortion might mean you’re a Democrat or a Republican, but now it’s not true.”

Rapoport said some key differences in the surveys affect the degree to which they are comparable.

“All these surveys were done for different purposes,” Rapoport said. “It’s not like a real serious survey where you keep repeating.”

Many of the questions were specific to the current events of the time. Rapoport said the issues have greatly changed since then.

There is also a significant difference in the magnitude of the surveys. In the past, students asked others survey questions. The 1977 sample size was 148 students, while 232 people answered the survey in 1980. This year, Rapoport e-mailed all students with the survey, and over 2,500 students responded.

The margin of error was approximately eight percent in 1977, while it was about 6 percent in 1984. Rapoport said it is less than 2 percent today.

Rapoport said he plans on sending out a second wave of questions to those who have responded to his survey. The full results of the survey are pending.

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