WASHINGTON — Young voters prefer Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential contest, according to a new survey, but the gap is modest and opinions divide starkly between college students, who favor Obama, and non-college youths, who prefer Clinton.
Young Republicans tilt toward Rudy Giuliani, although their votes are split more widely and many more are undecided than is true for young Democrats.
Those are the headlines from a national survey of 2,526 likely voters ages 18-24 released Wednesday by Harvard University's Institute of Politics.
Of those planning to back a Democrat:
- 38 percent consider Obama their first choice.
- 33 percent pick Clinton.
- 7 percent support John Edwards.
- 13 percent were undecided.
- 26 percent prefer Giuliani.
- 15 percent back John McCain.
- 9 percent pick Fred Thompson.
- 6 percent back Mitt Romney.
- 6 percent back Ron Paul.
- 30 percent were undecided.
The Iraq war was by far the most important issue for young voters, as 37 percent said it was the No. 1 issue. Health care finished second, at 9 percent.
The findings highlight for Obama the potential perils of the Jan. 3 caucuses in Iowa, which will be the first state to vote.
College students prefer Obama to Clinton, 44 percent to 23 percent, the poll found. Young people who never enrolled in college, however, back Clinton over Obama, 38 percent to 31 percent.
The Iowa caucuses will take place while universities are in the midst of winter break. With most campuses closed, if students skip voting because they're vacationing or visiting family in other states while young Iowans who aren't college-educated turn out to caucus, Clinton could get the edge with this important vote bloc. That could make the difference in a state where Clinton, Obama and Edwards are locked in a virtual three-way tie.
The early caucus date "probably hurts a little bit the college turnout in Iowa, but I don't know how much," said James A. Leach, a former Iowa congressman who now directs the Harvard institute that released the survey. Given the intensity of college students' interest in issues and the candidates, Leach said, "I would be very surprised if there isn't a very large youth turnout in Iowa this election."
Still, most experts consider the youth vote unreliable. It had been declining in general elections since the 1970s, but showed significant resurgence in 2004, although young people still voted in lower numbers than older age groups.
In the Harvard survey, 64 percent of college students and 58 percent of non-college youth said they planned to vote in a primary or caucus. But pressed about whether they would "definitely" vote, college students' edge evaporated: 40 percent of college attendees and 41 percent of non-college youth said yes.
The survey, taken Oct. 28-Nov. 9 by Harris Interactive for Harvard, was conducted online from a sample of young people who agreed in advance to participate. Because of the method, no formal margin of error was attached to the findings.
While the polling industry considers online surveys less reliable than traditional telephone surveys, Institute of Politics polling director John Della Volpe said that phone surveys of young voters are skewed. That's because there's no way to randomly dial cell-phone users, and half of young people may not use land lines.