Fall 2012 Articles, Politics, Religion

Freshman Really Are Different: Political and religious views vary by year in school

In 2008, President Obama won 66% of the votes from 18-29 year olds. That figure declined to 60% in 2012. That raises a question: Is there growing dissatisfaction with Democrats among those just turning eligible to vote?  For example, political scientist, Gary Jacobson, attributed young peoples’ exceptional dislike of George Bush for their turning into Democrats (http://www.amazon.com/Divider-Not-Uniter-American-Election/dp/0205529747).  Perhaps the opposite was starting to occur with Obama?

In line with this idea, the most recent Pack Poll finds a sizeable gap in the percentage of younger students calling themselves Republican versus Democrats. A majority of freshmen (53%) call themselves a Republican. Conversely, just 44% of the seniors say they are Republicans.  The gap in those calling themselves Democrats is not as large, but is the mirror opposite: only 40% freshman identified themselves as a Democrat, while 47% of the seniors consider themselves to be a Democrat.

Our poll also included a question about the bible that we examined in case the partisan gap by year in school was an aberration. As before, freshmen were much more likely to agree that the “the Bible was the actual word of God.” Indeed, 42% of freshmen stated they believed the Bible is the literal word of God, while only 23% of seniors said the same thing.


Why is there such a distinct gap in political and religious views between freshman and seniors? There are at least two possible explanations.  One is that our most recent findings are, as insinuated, attributable to changing views among younger people, in response to recent political events and the results, perceived or otherwise, of the Obama administration. Thus, the gap in percentage of Republicans by respondents’ year in school could be explained by a backlash against the governance of Obama. For example, perhaps the 2010 “backlash” against Democrats was a so-called “canary in the coal mine”. If this explanation is accurate, the gap in fall of 2012 would not be a normal and reoccurring trend that shows every semester.

Another possibility is that throughout the years, the views and political opinions of incoming freshmen are consistently more conservative, but subject to change. Maybe students come to State more conservative, and leave more liberal? A college education exposes students to a variety of different conflicting ideas, concepts, and beliefs. It could be that as freshmen come in to NC State, they have not completely discovered and established their beliefs and political views. Incoming students face a diversity of people; different professors and hundreds of students around the state influence those around them and open up their minds to different ideas, cultures, and theories. According to this view, the 2012 gap would be attributed to the culture of the college and is a normal, stable, annual finding. The freshman students’ view about the Bible, too, would be attributed to their changing views and opinions. The belief that the word of God is literal is less prevalent in people who have some college education and those that have education after college; therefore, the gap that is observed in the data between freshman and senior responses could be a normal trend from semester to semester.

Fortunately, the Pack Poll has now been conducting surveys for 5 semesters, beginning with Fall 2010. In order to see which possibility is more likely to explain the findings of Fall 2012, we can examine the prior data to see if certain trends are more apparent than others.


When looking at the actual gap between freshman and seniors who selected their party, it becomes clear that the difference between the years in school was largest in Fall 2010 and Fall 2012. There does not seem to be a gap or significant difference during the Spring 2011 semester, however, and in one semester respondents’ party ID was unmeasured. If the gap we see in 2012 were best attributed to the culture of college, the gaps would be stable throughout every year. That is, we would see a large percent difference in these views of freshman and seniors every semester. This doesn’t mean, however, that college culture does not have an influence in affecting student’s party ID. The second explanation of the gap isn’t supported by the data either.  That is, there is not a growing gap by year in school over time. It seems like the culture of college explanation has better though inconclusive support, and that younger students may show a change in their party ID as a response to the political events surrounding the two most recent elections involving Obama.

Ultimately, many factors may come into play when explaining and analyzing this interesting difference by year in school. With more data over more semesters, it will become easier to tell if the 2012 results are a trend related to Obama or the experiences of college life.



Fall 2012 Poll [download the data used]

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