WASHINGTON — By a small margin, college students say George W. Bush would be a better roommate than John F. Kerry, but that doesn't mean they are going to support the president in November.
Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, holds a 10-point lead over Bush among college students, according to a Harvard University study released Thursday.
However, that lead may not translate into a corresponding percentage of votes, according to researchers at Harvard's Institute of Politics, part of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, because 37% of those interviewed said they did not know enough about the Massachusetts senator to be able to form an opinion of him.
Students' concerns about the struggling job market and the ongoing conflict in Iraq are likely to influence their decisions in the voting booth, the study found.
Six months ago, Bush had a higher approval rating -- 61% -- among college students than among Americans as a whole, where it was 50%. Now 47% of the students interviewed support the job he is doing.
"Views have crystallized over the last couple of weeks" as unrest in Iraq grew, said pollster John Della Volpe.
The study, by Schneiders/Della Volpe/Schulman, a national opinion research firm, interviewed 1,205 undergraduates by telephone between March 12 and March 23. The margin of error was 2.8%.
When students were asked which candidate they would vote for if the election were held today, Kerry led Bush, 48% to 38%. Bush was seen as the more desirable roommate, 43% to 42%.
However, Kerry is seen more as an alternative to Bush than as a well-defined leader in his own right.
To solidify college students' support, he must attempt to define himself in the next few months, the study found -- focusing particularly on developing plans for Iraq and combating terrorism.
Unlike in 2000, when only half those interviewed in a similar survey said they planned to vote, 62% now say they expect to do so -- an increase of 1 million to 1.5 million voters over those who said they would vote four years ago, the researchers said.
Whether that many college students will vote is another matter. According to census data, the turnout of 18- to 24-year-olds in the 2000 general election was 36.1% -- the lowest of any age group.
"Generation-defining" events -- including the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq war -- have caused more students to pay attention to politics this year, said Caitlin Monahan, a Harvard student who helped conduct the survey.
At Harvard, students are required to register to vote before being issued identification cards or allowed to register for classes, said David King, a Harvard public policy professor.
He said he believed that if implemented at schools nationwide, such a requirement would bolster political participation and election turnout.