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Poll: Kerry leads Bush among students

Harvard poll suggests 48 percent for Kerry, 38 percent for Bush

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America Votes 2004

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- College students favor Democratic presidential contender Sen. John Kerry over President Bush by a 10-point margin and have become substantially more dissatisfied with Bush over the past six months, according to a poll released Thursday.

The survey by Harvard University's Institute of Politics (IOP) comes amid increasing focus on the nation's youngest voters.

Kerry this week launched a national tour of college campuses, "Change Starts with U," on which he's joined by rock stars and fellow politicians.

The Bush campaign says it has long been active on college campuses and has recruited tens of thousands of student volunteers.

The Harvard poll of 1,205 college students, conducted March 13-23, found Kerry leading Bush 48 percent to 38 percent, with independent Ralph Nader drawing 5 percent. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

The poll suggests "Kerry's support is soft," however, because many who say they'd vote for him simply want an alternative to Bush, the IOP said in a news release.

Thirty-seven percent of students said they don't know enough about the senator from Massachusetts to have formed an opinion about him.

Since a survey by the same organization in October, Bush's job approval rating plummeted 14 points, from 61 percent to 47 percent, while support for the war in Iraq dropped from 58 percent to 49 percent, the poll found.

Some recent signs of economic recovery have failed to give Bush a boost on one key topic: two-thirds of students polled said they believe it will be difficult to find a job after graduation, a figure nearly identical to the October poll.

"Concern over the war in Iraq and weakness in the job market has caught up with President Bush," IOP Director Dan Glickman said in the news release.

"College students now share the general public's more mixed view of the president, and Senator Kerry is benefiting from that shift. Still, these are highly independent voters who are open to persuasion and it would be in the interests of both parties to court them aggressively."

The poll also found that unlike in the general population, the majority of college students surveyed -- 57 percent -- support legalizing same-sex marriage.

The survey used a new method "for assessing the political ideology of America's college students," the IOP said. A combination of 11 different questions determined that "the old 'liberal' and 'conservative' labels do not fit more than half of today's college students, who are mostly centrists and highly independent."

The largest number, 41 percent, identified themselves as independent.

The survey found that fewer now identify as Republicans -- 24 percent, down from 31 percent in the fall. Democrat identification increased from 27 percent to 32 percent.

Sixty-two percent of respondents said they will "definitely" vote in November, while 21 percent said they "probably" will vote.

The potential impact of college students' votes is unclear.

Young Americans vote at a rate far below that of the general population, numerous studies have shown.

In 2000, overall voter turnout was 50 percent, among those 18 to 24 it was only 29 percent, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a nonpartisan group that studies voting patterns.

Still, college students vote more often than noncollege students of the same age.

The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which is based at the University of Maryland and tracks youth voting patterns, said in a study that "18 to 25 year olds with college experience are nearly twice as likely as noncollege youth to vote."

Various studies have shown a trend of fewer and fewer college students voting since the early 1970's. But nonpartisan groups have launched intense efforts to increase turnout for this election, and are hoping that 2004 will be the year that trend is broken.

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