Fri Sep 16, 2005 8:30 pm
College students increasingly leaning Republican, survey finds
By JEFF ZELENY
COLUMBUS, Ohio - Growing up, the politics in the household of Steven Druckenmiller had always leaned toward the liberal side. So when the 20-year-old goes home, he takes delight wearing a shirt from his College Republican club.
At Capital University here, Drucken-miller and several dozen others regularly hold meetings to discuss tax policy, free trade and other conservative bedrocks. Membership in the rival Democratic group, meanwhile, has dwindled to two.
"Sure," the college junior said with a smile, "some of us have liberal parents and are rebelling."
Druckenmiller and his friends represent a growing trend of college students who are identifying with the Republican Party. Gone are the days when college campuses were liberal strongholds, awash only in principles of the Democratic Party.
A new poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University showed that 31 percent of college students across the country identify themselves as Republicans. The poll also showed that 61 percent of college students approve of President Bush's job performance, which is about 8 percentage points higher than the general public.
At the same time, 27 percent of the students say they are Democrats. And 38 percent say they are independent or unaffiliated, which makes them ripe targets for presidential candidates who are paying careful attention to the youngest segment of the electorate, particularly the nation's 9 million college students.
"The days are over of colleges being a bastion of Democratic politics," said Dan Glickman, director of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "We've had 20 years without much radicalism on campuses around the country. The campuses now reflect more of the country as a whole."
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan's presidency inspired a generation of conservatives on college campuses. GOP strategists hope to re-create and expand that movement and are turning to college-age Republicans like Druckenmiller who were barely born when Reagan took office.
It was here in Columbus, in fact, where the television sitcom "Family Ties" was mythically staged from 1982 to 1989, as Michael J. Fox's college-age character of Alex P. Keaton worshiped Reagan, much to the dismay of his hippie parents. That show, which Druckenmiller watched in reruns, first inspired his political thought.
So when Bush came to downtown Columbus recently, the junior economics and philosophy major from Fremont, Ohio, stood on a street corner for nearly two hours to show his support for Bush. Wearing a College Republican sweatshirt and holding a bullhorn with his right hand, Druckenmiller marshaled young conservatives through a thicket of Democratic protesters.
"We are a new wave coming in!" he said in an interview, stepping away from the demonstration for a moment. "It's a blend of Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque conservatism."
Indeed, the Republican Party hopes to capitalize on the energy and interest created last month by the bodybuilder/actor's election as California governor. And like Schwarzenegger, polls show that younger Republicans are more likely to support moderate positions on issues like abortion and gay rights.
To be sure, the Democratic Party is not ceding the young vote. Last week in Washington, nearly 4,000 young professionals danced to hip-hop music at a fund-raiser led by former President Bill Clinton.
In a quest to build its own new generation of supporters, the party is concentrating on one message for college students: Jobs. The Democratic presidential candidates will focus on the economy and other issues Tuesday night in Boston at "America Rocks the Vote," a CNN debate where young voters will quiz the candidates for 90 minutes.
For the future of both political parties, the stakes are high, as many college voters are casting ballots for the first time.
"They are much more open-minded," Glickman said. "But once you're a Republican or a Democrat, you tend to stay there."