CHICAGO - President Bush's support on college campuses has dropped substantially in the past six months because of growing student dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq, the weak job market and Bush's stance on gay marriage, according to a poll released yesterday.
The survey from the Kennedy School of Government's Institute of Politics at Harvard University showed college students favoring Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, over Bush, 48 percent to 38 percent.
Independent candidate Ralph Nader drew the support of 5 percent.
Among students who say they definitely will vote in November, Kerry's lead over Bush widened to 56 percent to 33 percent.
The poll of 1,205 college students reflects clear shifts in attitudes on college campuses, which last fall gave Bush higher marks than did the overall public, as well as the nod in the November election.
In some ways college students are now more in sync with the general public, with divided views on the president's performance in office.
Dan Glickman, the institute's director and a former Clinton Cabinet member, said he "wondered when the war would start taking its toll on the president."
"These numbers ought to be a warning to the president," he said, "but they are not necessarily locked-in-stone good news for the Kerry campaign."
The poll - conducted March 13-23 and with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points - showed Bush's job approval falling 14 percentage points, from 61 percent to 47 percent. Campus support for the Iraq war also dropped from 58 percent in October to 49 percent. The war ranks as the top issue among college students; the economy has been the first concern of the general public.
Much has changed since October's campus poll. Six months ago former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the anti-war candidate, seemed poised to win the Democratic nomination, and Kerry was a distant second or worse. Iraq seemed more stable than it is now, and gay marriage as an issue was not on the radar.
Sharp differences over gay marriage separate college students from the overall population. Fifty-seven percent of college students support marriage between homosexuals, while 61 percent of the overall population opposes it.
Glickman said student support for gay marriage reflects a more tolerant philosophy and a desire "of students not wanting the government to tell them what to do with their lives."
While Kerry is the apparent beneficiary of the shifting attitudes, the poll says that support for the Massachusetts senator is soft. More than a third - 37 percent - said they did not know enough about Kerry to hold an opinion of him or do not recognize his name. Much of Kerry's support, the poll suggests, stems from a desire for an alternative to Bush.
Student worries about the job market remain dominant. By a 2-1 ratio, the majority of students think it will be somewhat or very difficult to find a job after graduating.
The college-age voter is being redefined, and liberal and conservative labels no longer fit.
Forty-one percent of college students consider themselves independent, up from 38 percent last fall. Fewer consider themselves Republican - 24 percent, down from 31 percent in October - and 32 percent Democratic, up from 27 percent.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.