“We are definitely targeting young people today,” Kelli Jo Claxton, a 26-year-old supporter of Barack Obama said on Tuesday as she handed out leaflets outside a polling station in Williamsburg, a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighbourhood that has been a magnet for art students and would-be rock stars.
“They are sending people here, but not up to Greenpoint, which has an older population.”
Ms Claxton, who works for a TV production house, was one of legions of young supporters who hit the streets across the country on behalf of Democratic and Republican candidates in hot pursuit of the youth vote.
With early exit polls suggesting Mr Obama won Georgia in part because he had gained more than 80 per cent of votes from those aged 18-24, analysts’ predictions of the increasing importance of young voters appeared to be coming true.
Even before Super Tuesday, young voter turnout had risen dramatically, according to an analysis by Circle, an organisation that promotes research of youth politics.
In Iowa, turnout rates for 18-29 year olds were 13 per cent, compared with 3 per cent in the 2000 presidential elections and 4 per cent in 2004. The overall turnout rate was 16 per cent.
In New Hampshire, the youth vote was even higher, running at 43 per cent of eligible voters, compared with only 18 per cent in 2004.
Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brooking Institution and former policy advisor to Bill Clinton, said that even though young voter engagement had already improved over the past two elections, the 2008 race would mark an inflection point.
“It seems to me that we are seeing a dramatic change,” he said.
Although Mr Obama has most obviously courted younger voters - most recently with a celebrity-packed music video, “Yes We Can”, that has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube - all the candidates have ramped up youth-orientated rhetoric in recent weeks.
Candidates from both sides took part in an MTV debate and many have used social networking sites such as Myspace and Facebook to encourage young voters to go to the polls.
Of Mr Obama, Mr Galston said: “If you have a campaign that’s A) making adept use of technology, B) is ideologically similar to what young people are looking for C) reaches out to them with a particular figure who is less remote from them than they perceive others to be and D) you make an effort to go and target them, then it’s not counter-intutitive to expect ... to reap significant rewards.”
“As you go up the age ladder in the Democratic contest you see a linear decrease in the propensity of voters to support Senator Obama.”
While Ms Claxton said some people had indicated they would not vote for Mr Obama because they thought “a black man would not get elected, or that he might be shot even if he did”, young Republicans in New York appeared to be facing more significant obstacles.
“It’s not easy being a Republican in New York. We’re outnumbered 6-1,” said Lyn Krogh, 26, director of public relations for architect Daniel Libeskind and president of the New York Young Republicans.
After setting up a street booth at Union Square, her fellow campaigners had drinks thrown at them, she said: “It’s not an easy thing to do, to ask people ‘Are you a Republican?’”
Ms Krogh, who supports John McCain, said many young people were still undecided about who to vote for following the withdrawal of local candidate Rudy Giuliani.
“It’s more difficult this time to get people involved,” said Steve Canzoneri, 27, spokesman for the New York State Young Republicans. “We’ve been trying to get the vote out - we do the best we can, but it’s hit or miss sometimes.”
They were using social networking sites to spread the word but he had little time for celebrity endorsements: “I don’t really care who Chuck Norris or George Clooney is voting for.”
Some observers warned about the danger of relying too greatly upon the youth vote, however.
“There’s generally two things you never want to be – the internet candidate or the youth candidate. Because everyone knows that youth won’t vote,” said David Epstein, a politics professor at Columbia University. “Obama may be the exception. For him its crucial – it’s a close race and he needs every vote he can get.”
YOUNG VOTERS ON STREETS OF NEW YORK
Among the young people on the street in downtown Manhattan after the victory parade for the success of the New York Giants in Sunday’s Superbowl, opinion was divided.
“There’s something about him I don’t trust,” said Ray, a 23-year-old from the Bronx.
“Maybe its his skin colour,” added his friend John Joseph, also from the Bronx
Mr Joseph and two other friends said they supported John McCain in part because he was a war veteran.
Jen, a 23-year-old from New Jersey, said she supported Mitt Romney because of his views on Iraq and because “I personally don’t want my taxes raised”.
Her friend Dimitri Pankas, a 23-year-old magazine assistant, said he hadn’t decided who to support, and hadn’t voted. “My biggest problem is that there are a lot of good candidates,” he said. Climate change and the economy were the issues that mattered most to him.
Jonathan Taylor, a 28-year-old African American barber from Fort Greene, Brooklyn, said he supported Mrs Clinton because he thought she would be a tougher president, and better for minorities.
“Hillary will lay the smack down and be strict, but be strict for everybody,” he said. “I think [Obama] grew up in the minorities and got his head up high and said screw the rest of them.”
Outside New York University in Greenwich Village, opinions were closer to type. Keeko Nakadai, 17, and Michael Malamud, 16, waiting for a drama class and too young to vote, both said they were more excited by the buzz around Mr Obama, but had not registered much about the presidential race.
“After Bush, a Democrat. That’s all I know,” said Michael. “I’d probably choose Obama. I don’t know why – that seems the general consensus.”