THE JUNIOR VARSITY

Taryn Mann made her political debut a few weeks ago in a half-lit back room in New York's Bowery Ballroom. As the alternative hip-hop group RJD2 performed upstairs, the 19-year-old freshman at the Fashion Institute of Technology sat at a table, registering voters for the activist organization Music for America. "The only time people my age ever think about politics is when it affects us directly," says Mann, straining to be heard over the pounding bass. This year the Iraq war made the connection clear. "So many people my age know people who went away, or someone who died," she says. "You have to get involved, or this thing will never be over."

That's a message that is beginning to resonate with a growing number of voters under 30. In the past they've been far less likely to make it to the polls than their parents or grandparents, and campaigns generally haven't spent much time or money courting them--even during presidential elections. Except for a brief spike in 1992, youth turnout in national elections has been steadily declining since 18-year-olds were first granted the vote in 1972.

But with a divisive war constantly in the headlines, the 2004 election could herald their coming-of-age. Their numbers are impressive: more than 48 million potential voters. More important, many say their allegiance is up for grabs. Twenty percent describe themselves as independents; the rest are pretty much evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, though they show much less party loyalty than their elders. (In 1972 President Richard Nixon was re-elected in a landslide, but half of young Americans voted for George McGovern. In the 1980s nearly 60 percent were squarely in Reagan Country.)

And they're paying attention this year. According to a NEWSWEEK GENext Poll, eight in 10 young voters say the outcome of this presidential election matters "a lot," and they are generally pessimistic about President George W. Bush's performance, especially the war in Iraq. They also care a lot about the economy. "There are stakes here now," says independent pollster John Zogby. "There's a sense of feeling threatened in the immediate, something that takes them out of themselves."

Activists on both sides are trying to figure out how to capitalize on the moment. Voter registration is the goal of organizations like the nonpartisan Rock the Vote campaign, Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, MTV's Choose or Lose campaign and World Wrestling Entertainment's Smackdown Your Vote! Those groups and a few others announced last winter that they will join forces for the 20 Million Loud campaign, which aims to boost youth turnout to 20 million--a gain of 2 million over the 2000 election.

Bush supporters also have their celebrity boosters, like the Christian band Third Day. During a recent performance at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, bassist Tai Anderson, the band's most outspoken member, told the cheering crowd: "There's so much at stake in this election year... Let 'em know what we think by the way we vote." The GOP is also targeting students, with efforts like Campus Canvas, the College Republicans' weapon against John Kerry. CR representatives will go door-to-door in dorms, getting to know residents and their political preferences, says Eric Hoplin, chairman of the College Republican National Committee. If a student isn't registered, the CR rep will help him fill out the form. When the absentee ballots arrive, CR reps will make sure they get mailed in. "Good old grass-roots politics are going to beat the flashy concerts any day of the week," says Hoplin.

The effort to get young people involved is even filtering down to high schools. A few weeks ago the hallway outside the gymnasium at Colorado's Westminster High School buzzed as seniors gathered for a graduation rehearsal. In between gossip about summer plans, Kaitlin Hershelman tried to get her classmates to register by asking everyone who passed, "Will you be 18 by Nov. 2?" At first only a few students stopped by. But then peer pressure began to kick in, and there were potential voters using every available hard surface to fill out registration forms. "This is so cool," said 18-year-old Nicole Milliard after calling a friend on her cell to tell her about the voter-registration table. "I can't wait to vote."

How effective these efforts will be remains to be seen. A reported 2,800 young activists gathered in Newark, N.J., recently for the National Hip-Hop Political Convention--with mixed results. Instead of spending time forging a political agenda for the black community, many participants seized the microphone just to vent their anger against Bush. But national co-chair Baye Wilson deemed the event a success because so many people were eager to spread the word.

That personal connection could be the best way to get the kids to the polls. Researchers who study this age group say the current crop of young voters, especially 18- to 24-year-olds, are different from earlier generations in their approach to civic involvement. They are more likely to have participated in community service, and see politics as local. For that reason, the best way to reach them is person-to-person. They need to be asked by someone they know.

In Boston, political organizer Malia Lazu, 27, learned that lesson five years ago, when she founded Boston Vote in an effort to reach young minorities. She hit up places where she knew young minorities might hang out--basketball courts, nightclubs, beauty salons--and talked one-on-one about politics. The conversation had to hit home, she says. One time she spoke to two young men who were smoking marijuana on a street corner. They scoffed at voting until she mentioned changing the laws for drug crimes. "People want to vote and will go out and vote, especially if their pastor asks them to, if their doctor asks them to, versus some dude in a jacket they don't know knocking on their door on Sunday morning." Now she's going national with the Young Voter Alliance, which will target young minority voters in swing states.

Establishing a personal connection is also the focus of the nonpartisan New Voters Project, which has set the admittedly ambitious goal of registering 265,000 young Americans and getting a million more to the polls in November. In addition to setting up tables in high schools like Westminster, the group's young volunteers and staff members will hang out at coffee shops, malls, skate parks and anywhere else they can find potential voters. Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the project is targeting six states--Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin--which have a combined population of 2 million 18- to 24-year-olds. "If politicians realize that young people are mobilizing to vote, and if those young Americans follow through and cast ballots, candidates and elected officials will begin to address the concerns of America's youth," says executive director Ivan Frishberg.

But what are their issues? One reason politicians have had such a hard time courting young voters is that their concerns aren't defined by age, as they are for senior citizens. Even on traditionally activist campuses like the University of California, Berkeley, debate has been relatively muted, and some students say they're waiting to make up their minds. "I still need to do some research," says 20-year-old Candice Roshan, a senior from Bakersfield. "I know I would not vote for George Bush. That's about all I know at this point." But no matter who they ultimately vote for, many young people still point to one defining moment in the evolution of their political consciousness. "We are the 9/11 generation," says Hoplin. The attack on New York and Washington "is the most significant event that's happened in this generation's lifetime. And for the first time, these voters are realizing that who leads the country actually matters." And they also know that in a close election, every vote counts.