Portrait of an SCU Student Voter

Survey shows most students vote and want honest politicians.

Portrait of an SCU Student Voter

Survey shows most students vote and want honest politicians

The typical Santa Clara student tends to vote for Democrats, but wouldn’t necessarily align him or herself with a political party. He or she places more importance on education and human rights than the economy, healthcare, or war and is even less concerned with the hot-button issues of abortion, the death penalty, and gay marriage.

Today’s student wants honesty and trustworthiness in political candidates and is least influenced by a candidate’s religion, gender, or race. He or she relies on parents, peers, and television news as sources when making political decisions and is not likely to be persuaded by clubs, churches, or direct mail. And SCU students vote because they believe it’s their ethical obligation to do so.

These are the conclusions of a campus-wide political survey conducted by Elizabeth Simas ’05, as part of her work as a Hackworth Fellow with SCU’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

“Given that it was an election year, we thought Beth’s project to explore the values in voting behavior among SCU students was ideal,” says Kirk Hanson, director of the Markkula Center and a member of the selection committee that chose Simas as one of three fellows for the 2004-05 academic year. The survey was distributed to various clubs and classes across seven academic departments. Nearly 560 students—freshmen through seniors—responded to the survey between November 2004 and January 2005. The sample, which was 49 percent male and 51 percent female, was close to the student body make-up of 44 percent male and 56 percent female.

Simas published the results of the survey in a 27-page document, “Ethics and Political Behavior: A Portrait of the Voting Decisions of Santa Clara Students.”

Get out the vote

Simas’ research shows that 84 percent of Santa Clara students register and vote, compared to the Census Bureau’s November 2000 figures, which cite only 64 percent of Americans age 18 and over as registered to vote. Of those who are age 18-24, only 51 percent were registered. Simas says the most plausible explanation for the higher registration rate at SCU is education, as the Census Bureau concludes that higher registration rates correspond with higher education levels.

Assistant Political Science Professor Elsa Chen, who has been behind an organized effort to add a polling place to the SCU campus, agrees with Simas’ findings: “At first glace, the percent of students who say they are registered to vote seemed high,” Chen says. “But in fact, I have been giving a survey on political participation in my political science classes for about a year now and Beth’s result is actually quite close to what I found after surveying my 2004-05 Introduction to American Politics classes, which attracts a wide range of students.”

Of the SCU students who associate with a particular political party, 42 percent consider themselves Democrats while 28 percent considered themselves Republicans.

Twenty-three percent of students claim no party affiliation, while 6 percent marked “other” and 1 percent identified with the Green Party.

Simas, who calls herself as a moderate, but identifies more with the Republican Party, says, “That was one thing that I found that was surprising—many students don’t identify with a certain political party.”

Choosing sides

“There are several factors that complicate voting behavior at SCU,” says incoming junior Gariety Pruitt, co-president of the College Democrats. “For example, we have a Catholic university with a good business school. Catholics have been traditionally Democratic, and the business school tends to have a conservative impact. And, most people who do state their political party usually say they’re a moderate Republican or Democrat.”


In fact, SCU’s Office of Institutional Research found a significant number of students defining themselves as “moderate” in a survey conducted on the 2004 graduating seniors. When asked how they would characterize their own political views, 6 percent answered “far left,” 32 percent “liberal,” 44.8 percent “middle-of-the-road,” 16 percent “conservative,” and 1.2 percent “far right.”

“My experience has been that college students everywhere are liberal-leaning on the whole,” says Chen. The reasons she believes SCU may be more liberal include the University’s Catholic population (which, according to SCU’s Institutional Research, was 45-50 percent during 2004-05); the fact that SCU is located in California, particularly the Bay Area; SCU’s emphasis on social justice issues; and the fact that more faculty members are liberal than conservative.

However, sophomore Grant Cassingham, incoming president of the College Republicans, disagrees with the conclusion that the Santa Clara leans liberal. “I believe those who are most vocal about politics or political issues tend to be those on the liberal left,” he said. “The College Republicans are every bit, if not more fervent and more present on campus than our opposition to the left. The only difference is that we are not as public with our events.”

That aligns with another one of the survey’s conclusions that despite the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans on the SCU campus, Republicans are more likely to vote than members of any other party. Eighty one percent of Republican Santa Clara students voted while 69 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of Greens, and 56 percent of all other students went to the polls in November.

They’ve got issues

SCU student voters consider education and human rights to be the most significant issues. The economy came in third overall, but was the top-ranked issue among Republicans.

Simas says the high ranking of education and human rights has to do with the Jesuit ideals espoused at SCU, especially when compared to other universities. “Although SCU students found education to be the most important issue, students in a Harvard study rated education fifth,” she says. “Students in the Harvard study ranked the economy as the most important issue influencing their votes.”

Pruitt, of SCU’s College Democrats, says “I would definitely say that the importance placed on education and human rights has to do with being a Jesuit university. People choose SCU because of its liberal arts teaching and Jesuit values on educating the whole person.”

Political Science Professor William Stover agrees, “I find that in my International Law class, students are very much interested in the human rights aspects of the law. But that’s part of the kinds of students we attract. They come to SCU because they recognize that this is a place where these interests can be nourished.” Kirk Hanson, who taught business ethics at Stanford for 23 years before joining the Ethics Center says, “There is a personal engagement in these issues at Santa Clara that I have not seen before. And there is certainly more discussion at Santa Clara regarding our collective responsibility for education and human rights and less discussion about achieving personal career success.”

Hanson notes that “it would be very interesting to know, however, whether the values reported are characteristic of West Coast and Bay Area colleges or whether they are Jesuit-based.”

Inflammatory issues rank lower

Despite the high ranking of human rights, the issues of abortion, the death penalty, and gay marriage received the three lowest average rankings in Simas’ survey, respectively. “This is not to say, however, that these issues are not important to SCU voters,” she concludes.

Pruitt adds, “My experience is that people are much more willing to talk about education and the economy. I think people have opinions on the more inflammatory issues, but we’re still young and we’re still trying to figure them out. I also think people may feel like these are more personal issues that don’t need to be discussed in the political realm, a feeling like it’s not what our national debate should be—we have other priorities. Talking about education and the economy will get us further politically than talking about the more controversial or deadlocked issues.”

Professor Chen has another theory: “People choose their issues based largely on self-interest. The economy and education are far less abstract issues in the lives of the average 18- to 22-year-old student. Although, in my own surveys, I have found that foreign policy and defense, including war in Iraq and homeland security, taxes, gay marriage, and abortion were the four issues that got the most mentions when I let students answer an open-ended question on what issues were most important to them.”

Students want honest politicians

Simas also asked Santa Clara students whether they hold candidates to ethical standards. On a scale of 1 to 10, students rated the ethical importance of various candidate characteristics. Of 12 possible characteristics, she found that honesty was the most important trait followed by trustworthiness and a willingness to take a stand. Religion, gender, and race were the three least significant characteristics related to ethics, according to the survey.

Chen warns of the danger of focusing too much on ethics when making political decisions. “While attention to ethics is obviously a good thing,” she said, “to concentrate too much on individual candidates runs the risk of ignoring party platforms and candidates’ policy positions. This makes voters more susceptible to media coverage and ads that focus primarily on individual personal traits, like Howard Dean’s temper, George Bush’s likability, and John McCain or John Kerry’s Vietnam heroism.”

Top influences

Parents are the largest influences on the political leanings of Santa Clara students, the survey shows. Eighty-two percent of respondents said they rely on their parents for political information while 81 percent rely on television news and 77 percent rely on their peers. Political mail ranked the lowest with only 10 percent of students relying on this source, while churches and clubs came in at 13 percent.

“Though I believe that students generally vote based upon their political party rather than on informed decisions, more and more students are becoming armed with the political ammunition needed to make good decisions,” says the College Republicans’ Cassingham. “If two students disagree politically but can hold up their respective sides of the argument, therein lies success. That is what is necessary on college campuses and I believe that is the direction in which SCU is headed.”

Civil discourse is key

Ultimately, according to Stover, what makes SCU’s political make-up unique is the civility at SCU that there might not be in other parts of the academic world. “Students here are able to talk to each other,” he says.

This, of course, is in line with the Markkula Center’s mission. “I think one of the Center’s most important missions is to help students and others realize that ethics and values affect every aspect of their lives and the decisions they make,” says Hanson. “By highlighting the values that students use in their voting, Beth helped create awareness that ethics had something to do with one’s political engagement. The notion that politics is all about voting for your narrow self-interest is simply false.”

Hanson says there are plans in the works for more surveys and “value inventories,” which the Center hopes to use with incoming freshman and outgoing seniors to track changes in perspectives. “One of the most interesting debates is how students’ values evolve over their college career,” he says. “The idea of having peers invite their fellow students into a deeper reflection of ethical issues is a wonderful idea,” adds David DeCosse, the director of Campus Ethics Programs, who worked closely with Simas and the other fellows.

Simas, whose father, Ted, graduated from SCU in 1970, is starting a Ph.D program in political science at the University of California, Davis this fall. To see her full report and survey, see www.scu.edu/ethics.

– Kim Kooyers is a freelance writer in San Jose.

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