Young people turned out in large numbers during the primaries [EPA]

Pounding the pavement and searching for votes in a Northern Virginia suburb, Phil Sukys is a foot soldier in a battleground state and part of Barack Obama's Children's Crusade.

"I'm working my ass off to really get people pumped up about all the candidates we have here in Virginia," says the 21-year-old University of Virginia student.

"It is terribly exciting for me to be involved. It's really been impressive and inspiring how well informed people are on the issues and how they understand what's going on in this election and how important it is.

"People who I never really imagined would want to vote or register to vote are absolutely enthralled by it. They can't wait.

"I think we're seeing a great surge in voter registration and youth activism this year."

Claire Ayendi, 22, is fighting for votes, too. She's working the phones as president of her College Republicans club at Liberty University, a Christian college in Lynchburg, Virginia. She wants John McCain in the White House.

"We're just pushing and we're on the brink, one day it goes on our side the other day it goes to the Democrat side, so right now we're just fighting," she says.

Ayendi believes if she and her friends get enough of her school's 10,000 students to register and vote in Virginia, McCain will win the state's 13 electoral votes.

"You know it is the battleground state," Ayendi says.

"We've had an awesome response; I heard today that we have 60 per cent of the school registered to vote in Virginia, so that's exciting. And I think our membership in college Republicans has tripled."

Key demographic

Both Ayendi and Sukys are part of a politically engaged, newly-energised youth vote that could make a big difference in this year's election.

After decades of being largely overlooked by presidential candidates (with a few exceptions), today young people and their votes matter.

John Della Volpe of Harvard University's Institute of Politics, said: "The youth vote is, I believe, the most significant voting block in this year's election.

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"Nearly one in five of all votes likely to be cast in November of this year will be cast by people less than 30 years old."

Fourty-four million Americans between 18 and 29 are eligible to vote; in the most recent Gallup poll, young voters overwhelmingly supported Obama by 20 percentage points over McCain.

In the past, young people were notorious for their apathy and low turnout on election day. The 26th amendment to the US constitution, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, was passed in 1971. In presidential elections between 1972 and 2000, the youth turnout rate declined by 16%.

But youth voting was up in 2004 by 11%; analysts say the turbulent events of the past 8 years, from 9/11 to Iraq to the economic meltdown, have raised the stakes, making this generation politically switched on.

Della Volpe said: "Young people today believe their vote matters, that politics matters and that their vote can make a difference.

"That wasn't necessarily the case in 2000, in 1996 and before that. September 11th and the image of the US abroad have really crystallised the importance of young people getting involved in politics in a very significant way."

Rock the vote

Music and politics mix at Rock the Vote, a non-partisan but progressive-leaning organisation aimed at getting young people to register and channel their political power.

At a recent concert on the campus of the University of Mississippi, bands played and college kids rocked out. Nearby, tables set up with voter registration forms were busy with students signing up.

Krissy Fassen, Rock the Vote's deputy director, said: "Young people are fed up.

"They're fed up with the direction of this country and they are excited to engage. They are passionate and they want to make their voice heard. This is their future and it's time for them to stand up and make a difference."

That passion and excitement were in the air at the event, which drew a large crowd of students to the leafy, tree-lined campus quad.

Rosanna Herrera, 23, said: "So many issues affecting our country right now are really directly impacting young people.

"The economy, college affordability, health care for young people. And the war in Iraq. It's young people that are dying in the war."

Polling shows the economy is the top issue for young voters, many of whom are worried about finding jobs, or repaying expensive college loans.

Della Volpe said: "The number one issue today in the minds of young voters is the economy, everything around the economy.

"The idea of the rising cost of living, the difficulty of paying off tuition bills while saving money for a house and potentially paying for healthcare are all economic issues directly tied to how young people think about the election and will cast their vote this November."

'Not for the old'

At Liberty University, a staunchly conservative school founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, Ayendi agrees that the economy is number one - but adds some other issues that are important to her.

"Personally for me I would never vote for a candidate that was for abortion," she says.

"If I had to pick, I would always pick a pro-life candidate, because the Bible is very clear about that issue."

The economy is said to be a primary
issue for young voters [EPA]
Sukys, who says he was "born and raised a Democrat", bubbles with enthusiasm for Obama.

"We have a young candidate who is all about working across the aisle," he said.

"There is disenchantment with Bush which I think is what originally spurred this on," but, he says, "the apathy has really decreased because we really have a candidate that cares about us.

"A lot of the things he's saying about universal health care and getting out of Iraq as fast as you can responsibly - that really appeals to us."

Fassen predicts a much larger youth turnout than in past elections: "In the primary campaign so far young people were doubling, tripling and even quadrupling their numbers at the polls.

"Already this year more than one million young people have downloaded voter registration from our site. It's been an amazing response and we envision that going straight through to the November elections."

In 2008, young people are coming of age, and becoming confident of their political power.

As Sukys said: "Politics is not a thing for old people any more."

Source: Al Jazeera