A History of Changing Views: Tracking Campus Politics
One writer explores the history of student political ideologies and voting patterns on campus.
Over the past 100 years, political opinion has undergone significant change at Dartmouth. Presidential election polls conducted by The Dartmouth reveal a shift from overwhelmingly conservative to overwhelmingly liberal student views, with a period in between of parity on campus.
From 1920 to 1960, Dartmouth students unilaterally supported the Republican candidate in each presidential election. According to a 1964 The Dartmouth article, in eight presidential elections from 1920 to 1956, the Republican candidate was consistently favored by the student body at margins between 61.25% and 76.23%. This was largely consistent with American politics at the time, which was dominated by pro-business, laissez-faire Republicans.
Dartmouth Digital History Initiative founder and history and East Asian studies associate professor Edward Miller agreed, stating that in the 20s, 30s and 40s “the student body was pretty conservative,” and Dartmouth was a predominantly conservative institution.
Even when American voters as a whole began to favor Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, whose election would mark the first of five successive Democratic presidential wins, Dartmouth students continued to lean conservative. In the 1960 survey conducted by The Dartmouth, the student body still preferred the Republican candidate Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy, but by the smallest margin in at least 40 years — 59.7% for Nixon to 36.4% for Kennedy.
The makeup of Dartmouth’s study body at the time was overwhelmingly white, Christian and wealthy, and this uniformity was likely a factor in student political affiliation. Discrimination was common: Former Dartmouth President Ernest Hopkins, in 1945, stated that some Jewish applicants to Dartmouth were rejected “simply because they were Jews,” and, prior to 1967, only one or two Black students matriculated each year, according to the Black Alumni of Dartmouth Association’s statistics.
1964 was the first year in which a Democrat won a presidential poll conducted by The Dartmouth, with 68.9% of students favoring Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, and 25.1% favoring his Republican rival Barry Goldwater. This election was a landslide nationwide, where Johnson won by over 400 electoral votes, but this shift in campus opinion remains notable.
However, Miller noted that the “shift to Johnson was actually not sustained, even though it [did] mark a different era of partisan affiliation. By 1968, lots of liberal Dartmouth students [were] bailing on Johnson because of the Vietnam War.”
Johnson’s escalation in Vietnam split the Democratic party, where many Dartmouth students supported the anti-war Democrat Eugene McCarthy, according to Miller. McCarthy would go on to nearly beat Johnson in New Hampshire’s primaries, which caused Johnson to end his re-election campaign. Also running in 1968 was pro-segregation Independent George Wallace, whose arrival on Dartmouth’s campus in 1967 caused massive protests.
“[Wallace] went up to the podium, and then people rushed the stage and he was surrounded,” Arthur Fergenson ’69 recalled.
More student activism occurred in 1969, in which a group of students took over Parkhurst Hall to call for the dismantling of the school’s ROTC program.
Miller noted that the war divided the campus, where “for a while, there [were] weekly protests, but there [were] also counter protests by students supporting the war.”
Despite the ongoing activism, Dartmouth was not seen as a very politically-minded campus at the time, or even a very intellectual one, according to Fergenson and visiting professor Gerald Rosenberg ’76.
“There was much less activism at Dartmouth [compared to other Ivy League schools] because students largely didn’t care,” Fergenson recalled. “The students who did care were on the left. The students who didn’t care were everybody else.”
Rosenberg said that “we were so focused internally that I just don’t know how involved we were in international politics.”
Following Yale University and Princeton University’s respective transitions to co-educational institutions, pressure from campus groups — such as Pioneering Women headed by Fergenson — ultimately led to the first women attending Dartmouth in 1972. Many Dartmouth students strongly opposed the shift to co-education, though.
“Guys would hold up signs, rating women with numbers [when they walked into the dining hall],” Rosenberg said.
1972 also came with a new initiative by former Dartmouth President John Kemeny for the acceptance of Native American students. This new policy led to activism by the Native American community, and to the eventual removal of Dartmouth’s Indian mascot in 1974, which in turn caused counter-protests against its removal.
Even with the changing student body, the 1976 presidential election poll conducted by The Dartmouth was won by a Republican candidate, with 51% of students favoring Republican Gerald Ford while over 38% favored the eventual winner Democrat Jimmy Carter. This was the final poll won by a Republican on Dartmouth’s campus, and the only poll among Ivy League colleges without majority support for Carter, according to The Dartmouth.
The 1980s was a period of increased conservatism across the United States and seemingly at Dartmouth. 1980 saw the creation of the conservative publication The Dartmouth Review, perhaps in response to co-education and the increasingly liberal stance of The Dartmouth, which had officially endorsed the Democratic candidate in the previous three presidential elections. Rosenberg agreed, stating that the start of The Dartmouth Review was “just a delayed reaction to all of this.”
The results of a 1984 campus poll found 52% of students supported Democratic candidate Walter Mondale over 46% which preferred Ronald Reagan, despite the 1984 presidential election being the most lopsided in recent memory, with Reagan winning every state but Minnesota.
Also during this period were the 1985 Apartheid protests, where students erected four shanties on the Green to protest racial segregation in South Africa. In February 1986, members of the Dartmouth Review destroyed the shanties, igniting massive protests and another Parkhurst Hall takeover.
“Whereas the 60s protests are remembered as a moment in which liberal, and even radical, forms of protest came to campus, the 80s and the shantytown incident is remembered as a moment of conservative protest,” Miller noted.
In 1988, Dartmouth students favored Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis with 55% of the vote, while George H.W. Bush received 44%. Again, Dartmouth was the most Republican Ivy — Harvard, for example, showed 70% of students supported Dukakis against only 26% for Bush, according to The Dartmouth.
The election of 1992 saw the most lopsided campus victory for a single candidate since 1964, with 63% of Dartmouth students preferring Democrat Bill Clinton over 16% for Bush. Dartmouth’s results were now about even with the other Ivies, with Princeton students most supportive of the Republican candidate, according to The Dartmouth. The 1996 election saw similar results, with 64% of students supporting Clinton over 28% for Republican Bob Dole.
The new millennium would see even greater support for Democratic candidates. In 2000, Al Gore received 62% of campus support against George W. Bush’s 23%. 2012 was again a comfortable lead for the Democrats, with 65% preferring Barack Obama and 31% for Mitt Romney. In 2016, a poll showed the most overwhelming support for one candidate since at least 1920. Hillary Clinton commanded 76% of the vote, compared to Donald Trump’s paltry 5%, which was less than even the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, who found 8% of the vote. This likely set the stage for student protests following Trump’s win, in which more than 300 students walked for “love and justice.”
Nonetheless, Miller noted that “the students who identify with or who typically vote as Republicans” may not “necessarily translate as support for Trump.”
2020 was even more lopsided; a staggering 82% of students planned to vote for Joe Biden, against 13% for Trump. Although this result may have been due to the strength of the candidates rather than the makeup of the student body, this almost universal consensus represents the least amount of parity on campus for at least a century.
The Dartmouth will again conduct a campus poll next year for the 2024 presidential election. If the Democrat candidate wins again, it will be the 12th consecutive win by a Democrat dating back to 1980, exceeding the 11 consecutive wins by a Republican candidate from 1920 to 1960. Although non-liberal groups still exist on campus — both the Conservative Students of Dartmouth and Dartmouth Libertarians host meetings often, and The Dartmouth Review continues to publish issues — these campus polls represent a uniformity of opinion which may perhaps be to the detriment of political discourse at Dartmouth.