- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2006

College students are becoming more religious, and it’s affecting their political views, according to a new Harvard University survey of this potentially influential voting bloc. “Religious centrists” rule, according to the university.

A full 70 percent say religion plays an important part in their lives, with a quarter saying their spirituality has increased at college. Six out of 10 say they are concerned about the moral direction of the country, according to the poll of 1,200 students from across the country, conducted March 13 to 27 and released Tuesday.

“Religion and morality are critical to how students think about politics and form opinions on political issues,” said Jeanne Shaheen, a former New Hampshire governor and director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics, which conducted the poll.

The Harvard study advises political parties to woo the spiritually inclined, a demographic that the popular press mostly deemed the exclusive territory of the “religious right” in the past two presidential elections.

“This analysis foreshadows the 2008 general election campaign for president where religious centrists, nearly a quarter of the student vote, will be the critical swing vote … and likely the most influential group in American politics for years,” according to the survey.

Attracting the elusive youth vote with hip text messages and celebrities is already a serious business among multiple partisan interest groups: 12 million voters ages 18 to 24 went to the polls in the 2004 presidential election, up 25 percent since 2000. But the groups are after larger prey. The young population is a behemoth demographic: There are 71 million Americans who are younger than 30, and they are a target.

“Generation Y is large, increasingly active and up-for-grabs politically,” F. Christopher Arterton of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management said last month after releasing the school’s new analysis of innovative voter initiatives aimed at the young and restless.

The Harvard researchers had their own unorthodox methods. Using a “political personality test,” the pollsters divided the youth vote into subsets that bend ideological barriers and create a number of political hybrids, they say.

Overall, the youthful voting bloc is 32 percent Democrat, 24 percent Republican and 41 percent independent or unaffiliated. In addition, 44 percent are “traditional” liberals and 16 percent “traditional” conservatives, with two more identifications thrown into the mix: religious centrists and secular centrists.

Just who are these religious centrists? According to Harvard, they are optimistic about the future, politically engaged and deeply concerned about the moral direction of the United States. They also are protective of the environment; support universal health care and free trade, and draw the support of young Hispanics and blacks.

Secular centrists, in the meantime, are optimistic but do not factor religion into their thinking. They support abortion and homosexual rights and are least likely to vote.

A breakdown of collegiate party preferences reveals further complexities. Republicans are composed of 34 percent traditional conservatives, 30 percent religious centrists, 20 percent secular centrists and 16 percent who consider themselves traditional liberals.

Among Democrats, 59 percent are traditional liberals, 24 percent are religious centrists, 9 percent secular centrists and 7 percent are traditional conservatives.

The new labels may portend some more flexible thinking on the part of anxious political consultants.

“Party identification is misleading, antiquated and only tells a small part about the beliefs of an individual,” according to the survey, which advised Democrats not to cede issues of morality to the Republican Party and admonished Republicans to focus on issues beyond the “‘Big Three’ — abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage.”

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