Beyond the Ballot: Harvard Students on the Issues

Sixty-five percent of surveyed Harvard undergraduates identified as “Progressive,” while more than 27 percent identified as “Social Justice Activists,” according to a survey The Crimson conducted last month.

These numbers stand in sharp contrast to a national poll of America’s 18- to 29-year-olds conducted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics last spring, serving to highlight the general liberal tilt of the College. In the national poll, just 31 percent of respondents identified as a “Progressive” and 18 percent identified as a “Social Justice Activist.”

The Crimson’s second installment of its two-part series on the 2016 election examines Harvard students’ political ideologies and the issues they care most about. The first, which was published Monday, analyzed which presidential candidate students support.

This year, during a presidential election defined by at times-divisive rhetoric and historically unpopular candidates, Harvard undergraduates believe the most important issue the United States faces is income inequality, followed by race relations and political polarization.

Survey responses revealed sharp differences in undergraduate ideology based on gender and political affiliation. Respondents who identified as politically conservative were 43 percent more likely than liberal respondents to identify as a “Patriot” and 63 percent more likely to identify as a “Capitalist.” Liberal respondents in turn were 58 percent more likely to identify as a “Feminist” or a “Progressive,” and 27 percent more likely to identify as a “Social Justice Activist.”

The Crimson’s survey received 2,128 responses out of 6,645 undergraduates, for a 32 percent response, rate and ran from Oct. 10 until Oct. 20. The Crimson did not adjust for any possible selection bias.

Personal Politics

The survey results confirm the general perception of Harvard College as liberal. More than 70 percent of respondents identified as “very liberal” or “somewhat liberal,” while around 13 percent identified as “very conservative” or “somewhat conservative.” Roughly 17 percent of surveyed undergraduates said they considered themselves politically moderate.

  • Men were more than twice as likely as women (16.8 percent vs. 8.1 percent) to identify as politically conservative. They are are also more likely to describe themselves as politically moderate (18.8 percent for men vs. 13.9 percent for women).
  • Men were far less likely than women to identify as feminists (89 percent vs. 45 percent). Female respondents who identified as “somewhat liberal” or “very liberal” were 35 percent more likely to identify as feminists than their male counterparts (94 percent vs. 59 percent). For moderates, that gap was 61 percent (87 percent vs. 26 percent); for “somewhat conservative” respondents, females were 41 percent more likely to identify as feminists (55 percent vs. 14 percent). No respondents who identified as “very conservative” also identified as feminists.
  • Respondents who came from a rural community were twice as likely to describe their beliefs as conservative compared to their urban counterparts (19 percent vs. 9.6 percent).
  • About 42 percent of those who identified as “very conservative” were Catholics.
  • Of those who identify as “extremely religious,” 48 percent percent describe their beliefs as conservative.
  • About 53 percent of those who identified as “very liberal” were either agnostics or atheists.

The survey results also show that a significant proportion of students considered their political views to have been shaped primarily by their family, friends and school. About 34 percent of respondents said their political views have been most influenced by family, compared to 27 for friends or school. Ninety-five percent of respondents who believed at least one of their parents would vote for Hillary Clinton planned to do the same. By contrast, roughly 50 percent of respondents who believed at least one of their parents would vote for Donald Trump planned to do the same.

What Matters Most

The economy continues to be the most important issue for voters nationwide, according to polls from the past year. American voters tend to be most concerned with the economy, unemployment, and the federal deficit—but respondents to The Crimson’s survey said that income inequality is the most important issue America faces, compared to 2 percent nationwide.

  • About 19 percent of respondents indicated they thought income inequality—an issue central to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s Democratic primary campaign—was the most important issue in the United States, followed by 16 percent for race relations, 14 percent for political polarization, 10 percent for the economy overall, 9.8 percent for education, and 9.4 percent for the environment.
  • Black or African-American respondents were the most likely—at 33 percent—to mark race relations as the most important issue facing the nation, compared to 17 percent of Hispanic or Latino respondents and 13 percent of white respondents.
  • Respondents who identified themselves as “somewhat conservative” or “very conservative” were more likely to mark the federal deficit and the economy as their top issue.

When asked their views on hotly-debated topics, respondents tended to have positive views on same-sex marriage and stricter gun laws.

  • Ninety percent of respondents found same-sex marriage—which the Supreme Court upheld as constitutional in June 2015—favorable.
  • Eighty-six percent of respondents found stricter gun laws favorable.
  • Respondents were split on other issues like legalization of marijuana (65 percent favorable, 15 percent unfavorable), America’s response to terrorist threats in the Middle East (22 percent favorable, 40 percent unfavorable), and race-based affirmative action (56 percent favorable, 20 percent unfavorable).

Attitudes towards these topics were split along party lines.

While nearly all respondents who identified as “very liberal” had a favorable view of same-sex marriage, only 29 percent of those who identified as “very conservative” did. The division was even wider for race-based affirmative action, with 79 percent of “very liberal” respondents expressing a favorable opinion but only 2.1 percent of “very conservative” respondents doing the same.

Blue About the News

Over the past decade, confidence and trust in the mainstream media has dropped steadily in the United States—a phenomenon emphasized in the 2016 election as Donald Trump and his supporters accuse news organizations broadly as being biased in favor of Hillary Clinton. In the first presidential debate, for instance, Trump remarked about Clinton that “the best person in her campaign is mainstream media.”

In line with the national skepticism and suspicion towards the mainstream media, only about 19 percent of respondents to The Crimson’s survey said they had “a great deal” or “a lot” of trust in the mass media—such as newspapers, TV, and radio.

  • Seventy-one percent of self-identified “strong Republicans” have “a little” trust or “none at all” in the mass media, compared to 25 percent of “strong Democrats.”
  • Respondents who plan to vote for Trump are even more likely—at 84 percent—to be distrustful of the mass media.

Seventy-two percent of respondents reported getting their news from The New York Times, making it the most popular source of political news.

  • Following the Times was CNN at 52 percent, The Washington Post at 38 percent, NPR at 32 percent, and the Wall Street Journal at 28 percent.
  • Respondents who identified as “somewhat conservative” or “very conservative” were much more likely than those who identified as “somewhat liberal” or “very liberal” to report receiving their political news from CNN (59 percent vs. 50 percent), Fox News (39 percent vs. 4.1 percent), and The Wall Street Journal (47 percent vs. 23 percent)more likely—all publications with the exception of CNN typically characterized as “conservative-leaning.”
  • Respondents who identified as “somewhat liberal” or “very liberal,” on the other hand, were much more likely to report getting their political news from The Atlantic (26 percent vs. 11), Buzzfeed (25 percent vs. 9.8 percent), The New York Times (77 percent vs. 52 percent), and NPR (38 percent more vs. 15 percent).