Northfield, Mass. — George Bush was the overwhelming favorite of high school students in the first-ever national high school election Tuesday night. Vice-President Bush won by a 2-to-1 margin, 24,819 votes to Michael Dukakis's 12,732 (with the rest to minor candidates), among more than 40,000 students. Most were only eight when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.
One hundred schools participated, two per state. They were a 50-50 mix of public and private, selected from the United States Department of Education's 1987 list of ``exemplary schools.''
Mr. Bush took every state except Massachusetts, Minnesota, South Dakota, Colorado, Arkansas, and the District of Columbia, and won 439 electoral votes to Governor Dukakis's 79. Only Michigan failed to report. Brookline High School, Dukakis's old Massachusetts stomping grounds, went for him 1,008 to 289.
``I'm against crime and taxes,'' said Marcelle Robertson, a junior here at Northfield-Mount Hermon Academy, the largest private boarding school in the country which served as election headquarters. ``And I'm for Bush. It's that simple.''
But it wasn't that simple for all students. Many spent the summer studying for this election. Most schools held student-run debates. The history honors students at Gill/St. Bernard in Gladstone, N.J., immersed themselves in the political conventions and conducted October forums on the candidates' styles, and news media influence on voters. Oregon Episcopal High in Portland held a schoolwide assembly last week on the meaning of democratic participation. Claremont High in California held a mock convention last week.
``These kids are all really bright and into it,'' said an NBC News reporter at Claremont Tuesday. ``They are a lot more informed than the people I have to interview on the street.''
A typical exchange in the loud Northfield dining hall Tuesday found a Bush voter saying: ``During the Reagan years my family has done pretty good. My dad owns a small business. The country's in a period of prosperity. Why fix something that isn't broken?''
``But what's been the basis for the prosperity?'' sophomore Ashley Salisbury cut in. ``Increased imports and decreased exports, that's what. I'm for Dukakis but I'm not crazy about him. I think it's really hard to find out what's going on in America - to get straight facts. The candidates avoid them.''
The environment was the top issue for high schoolers, followed by abortion (``a very very personal issue for us,'' said one young woman) and national defense. There was an ambivalence about both candidates. Many Bush supporters agreed with Dukakis's social policies but not his stand on foreign policy issues.
``The environment's going to hell and the candidates aren't talking about it,'' a student said. ``It's because they're old and they are going to be dead before the chips fall. Our generation is going to be stuck with ozone problems, and dirty air and water.''
``The bottom line is we have to take care of pollution now,'' says Doug Cameron of Gill. ``The problem isn't going to solve itself.''
Doug played George Bush in a school debate and opposes Bush's negative campaign but still voted for him. ``Dukakis refused to answer Bush's charges. He kept criticizing Bush's tactics which made him look like a crybaby, an underachiever. Bush'll cut taxes for the working class; they can manage money better than Congress.''
Brian Muldoon played Dukakis. He likes him more than Bush, but ``I don't like either one much. They weren't hitting issues. The deficit is huge. Reagan did what he had to do, but times are changing.''
The vote lacked a blue-collar constituency. ``The reason kids here aren't worried about economic problems is because they haven't experienced any,'' one private school student said.
Some teachers say students more interested in cars ought not to vote. One student disagreed saying kids were already too cynical and should be encouraged.
California Republicans rented an airplane and got a license to drop candy on a huge Claremont High Bush rally last week: ``Most of it fell on the parking lot,'' said one teacher who later admitted she was voting for Dukakis.