With an extra-large "Rock the Vote" T-shirt pulled over her down parka, Holly Teresi is fired up in the subzero New Hampshire afternoon. She and a small band of young people slip between the crowds of Dean, Kerry, and Clark supporters, hollering with equal enthusiasm.
They're not here for any one candidate, but for a generation - their own.
They want young people to vote. And in Iowa, they did. The number of 18- to 29-year-olds who turned out at the caucuses quadrupled compared with 2000. In New Hampshire, where Ms. Teresi's group spent almost a week knocking on doors, grabbing young people on the streets, and rallying college campuses, the youth turnout was up 50 percent from four years ago. "We think that young people are going to be the swing voters of the 2004 election, be it Dean or Kerry or George Bush," says Scott Beale of the nonprofit Youth Venture, who's working the Granite State along with Teresi. "It's going to be our generation that decides this election."
Political scientists are less sanguine about that, but they are impressed with this year's youth turnout. They attribute it to a variety of factors, from the multicandidate field, which prompts campaigns to reach down to the very bottom of voter lists looking for supporters, to Howard Dean's and Dennis Kucinich's campaigns, which specifically target the under-30 crowd. And military conflicts, like Vietnam, have traditionally politicized the young on both sides of the issue.
Then, of course, there are the "Rock the Vote" activists who are making an extra effort this year to debunk the myth that kids are self-centered, civic illiterates.
In this sharply divided country, they could be a pivotal block. Forty million people are between the ages of 18 and 29. If their turnout increases 5 percent, that's 2 million more votes up for grabs.
"Young people are pretty evenly divided in their announced political leanings, so no party has a lock on the youth vote going in," says William Galston, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) in College Park, Md. "But if one party does a better job in getting them out than the other, than that could make a significant difference."
It's important to note that turnout was up across the board in both New Hampshire and Iowa. But in Iowa, the percentage of young people at the caucuses also increased significantly to 17 percent from 9 percent in 2000. In New Hampshire, the percentage increase was significantly smaller.
There were also stark differences in the voting patterns. In Iowa, the youth vote tracked pretty closely with that of the overall population: They went for Kerry 37 percent to Dean's 25 percent. But in New Hampshire, 18- to 29-year-olds broke for Dean, 34 percent to Kerry's 33 percent.
For those who study voting patterns, what matters is not whom they voted for, but that they voted - because it's proved to be habit forming. "If people don't vote in their first three or four elections, they're lost," says Tom Patterson of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "But if they do vote even once, they tend to do it again."
As the campaign shifts from the up-close, retail politics of these two early contests to the wholesale media-driven campaign of the next few weeks, many analysts are waiting to see if this youth surge will continue. Studies have consistently shown that US youths - tattooed and pierced as many may be - are actually quite old fashioned. They like face-to-face contact, and they like to be asked for their vote.
"Dean was the first person to say, 'Come to a coffee shop on Wednesday night. It will make a difference,' " says Mr. Beale. "It's been showed time and time again that if you ask young people to get involved, they'll do it."
Studies done by CIRCLE and Yale University found that face-to-face canvassing increases turnout among the young 7 to 8 percent. Live phone calls, not the robo-messages many campaigns use now, increase it 3 to 6 percentage points, according to Donald Green, a political-science professor at Yale University.
Other research shows that young people who have grown up in a media- saturated environment don't respond strongly, if at all, to political messages they receive through the media. So the question is, can the campaigns, which are now dependent almost completely on the media and paid advertisements to get their message out, keep young people involved?
"We'll get a good indicator next Tuesday," says Professor Patterson. "I hope it's up, but my guess is it won't be up anything like Iowa or New Hampshire."