The Politics Survey

Nearly 20 percent, or 2145 people responded to our web survey, of 11,118 students we contacted via email. About 23 percent of all undergraduates responded, and 17 percent of graduate students responded. For many of the analyses here, we considered undergraduates and graduates collectively as “MIT students.” The vast majority of survey respondents, graduate or undergraduate, reported being between the ages of 18 and 29, which was an appropriate age range for comparisons with other polls of “young adults.”

On the issues

College students, especially those in Cambridge, have a reputation for being left of center. Our results bore that out. Overall, 48 percent of MIT students thought the Democratic Party best reflected their views, whereas only 9 percent said the same of the Republicans. The Libertarian party put up a good fight, matching Republicans at 9 percent. A meager 2 percent identified with the Tea Party movement.

These preferences translate predictably to how MIT students want today’s elections to unfold. Fifty-four percent would like to see the Democrats hold on to the House and Senate, but we’re also in tune with what many in the media believe to be a political reality — 46 percent of us believe the Republicans will take the House today, while the Democrats hold the Senate.

Forty percent of MIT — a whopping plurality — consider the economy to be the most important issue facing the United States in the upcoming year, out of a list of eleven choices generated from Pew and Gallup polls. A strong contingent, 14 percent, believed federal spending was the most important issue. Only 1 percent felt that terrorism was the most important issue.

But why do MIT students prefer Democrats? Our stance on social issues may push the pendulum in the Dem’s favor — only 11 percent of MIT students considered themselves net conservative (either very conservative or just conservative) on social issues; 68 percent said they were liberal.

On fiscal issues, the campus is split. 32 percent said they were net conservative, 33 net liberal, and 35 moderate.

Compared to the U.S.

Many of our questions came from telephone polls conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press through August, September, and October. How did MIT students stack up against Americans at large? Overall, and not surprisingly, MIT grads and undergrads take a more liberal stance on most political, economic, and social issues. When asked to describe their general political views, 39 percent of MIT students overall reported being “liberal,” compared to only 17 percent of Americans surveyed by Pew. A mere 12 percent of MIT students reported being “conservative,” compared to 30 percent of Americans. The number of MIT students and Americans who said they were “moderate,” however, were virtually the same.

In our survey, we asked MIT students, graduate and undergraduate, whether or not they supported California Proposition 19, a measure to legalize and regulated marijuana. Fifty-four percent said they supported the measure, while only forty-one percent of Americans said they would support the legalization of marijuana in a Pew poll. Similarly, 26 percent of MIT students said they would not support the measure, compared to over half of all Americans to the similar Pew question.

Overall, MIT students also took a very different stance on a question of evolutionary origins, compared to Pew results from an identical question. 75 percent of MIT students felt that living things evolved due to natural processes, compared to 52 percent, a bare majority, of surveyed Americans.

Compared to young adults

Comparisons between MIT students and Americans at large may be useful in some cases, but we also asked how we stand relative to people our own age. Most of our respondents, 82 percent, were between the ages of 18 and 27, and an additional 16 percent reported being 28 years or older. Thus, we considered comparisons between MIT graduate and undergraduate students and data from other polls of 18–29 year olds to be appropriate.

Somewhat disappointingly, significantly fewer MIT students overall are registered to vote compared to Americans at large and 18–29 year olds (“young adults”). 77 percent of young adults at a 4-year college, as reported by a September-October study conducted by the Harvard University Institute for Politics, are registered to vote — but only 66 percent of undergraduates respondents at MIT said the same.

But MIT students may be more optimistic about the state of affairs in this country. When asked if they thought the country was headed in the right direction, 34 percent of MIT students overall said yes, compared to only 18 percent of 18–29 year-olds who responded to a similar question. Considering only students enrolled at 4-year colleges, 31 percent of MIT undergrads felt the country was headed in the right direction, significantly more than the 25 percent who said the same from other colleges.

Finally, we still buck the trend in our general political leaning compared to people our own age. Asked to describe their general political views, 52 percent of MIT students classified themselves as leftwards of moderate, while only 15 percent classified themselves as rightwards of moderate. In comparison, 37 percent of young adults said they were liberal or leaning liberal, and 34 percent said they were conservative or leaning conservative. Since the relevant question from the Harvard University Institute for Politics differed somewhat from ours, these results can be taken with a grain of salt.

Opinions by Course, living group

Here at MIT, undergraduates are proud of their distinct living group culture — and our political views may reflect some of those differences. On a scale with 2 as “very liberal,” 1 as “liberal,” 0 as “moderate,” -1 as “conservative,” and -2 as “very conservative,” (“political index”) Senior House was the most liberal dorm in terms of general political views, and McCormick was the most conservative. McCormick was also the only undergraduate residence to, on average, lean conservatively of “moderate.”

Applying the same methodology to academic departments, and counting graduates and undergraduates, Course 24 (Linguistics and Philosophy) was the most liberal, and Course 16 (Aeronautics and Astronautics) was the most conservative — but still leans liberal overall.

Indeed, Course 16 students respondents generally took more conservative stances on the issues. When asked whether they thought military action in Iran could be justified if it meant preventing them from developing nuclear weapons, 48 percent of Aero/Astro said yes, compared to only 30 percent of MIT students as a whole.

We also found that graduates were slightly, but significantly, more liberal than undergraduates. Graduates had a political index just shy of 0.6 (with 1 representing just “liberal”), while undergraduates had an index of about 0.4. These differences were robust to only analyzing the political views of undergraduates and graduates who were U.S. citizens.

Finally, please recognize that all of these numbers suffer from response bias, as all surveys do. They tell us a lot about those who took the survey, but may not hold for those who didn’t. Our purpose with this survey was to find some general and interesting trends about how MIT students felt concerning certain political issues, and how they roughly compare to Americans at large, and other people our own age.

You may also recognize that we asked a lot more questions than the ones we’re presenting here — we hope to continue to find interesting results and release them in the coming weeks. Look for them in the Opinion section!