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Independents Split Evenly Between Candidates

Jack Marshall says he's voting for Barack Obama this year. That's ominous news for John McCain.

Barack Obama & John McCain
CNBC.com
Barack Obama & John McCain

"I like Obama, he has fresh ideas on things," said Marshall, 59, an independent who hasn't backed a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton. "McCain has George Bush's ideas on things, and I don't think that's such a hot deal right now."

Independents like Marshall, an unemployed chemist from Drexel Hill, Pa., are a quarter of voters right now. A recent Associated Press-GfK Poll showed them divided about evenly, 44 percent for Obama and 41 percent for McCain.

Some years, that wouldn't be so bad for the Republican presidential nominee. But because Democrats decisively outnumber Republicans this year, McCain needs an edge among independents to help close that gap.

"He's got to win a majority of independents in order to win the presidency, obviously," said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster not working for McCain. With minority voters heavily favoring Obama, McCain has to win white independents in particular, Ayres said. That group comprised three-quarters of independents and leaned slightly toward the Republican in the AP-GfK Poll.

Earlier this year, independents were a strength for both contenders. Obama, the Illinois senator, and his mantra of change won independents in Democratic primaries while McCain, the Arizona senator, was the choice of independents in the Republican contests.

As Election Day approaches, though, independents are sounding more like Democrats than Republicans on the campaign's overarching issue, the reeling economy.

Eighty-two percent of independents said they worry the economic crisis will inflict a long-term toll on them, compared with 89 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans, according to the AP-GfK poll.

Like Democrats and unlike Republicans, most independents said they'd prefer a candidate they trust to handle the economy to one they trust on national security. They said Obama would better deal with the financial crisis and better understands its impact on them.

"Obama has more distrust in the system that has gotten us into this mess," said Monica Arce, 37, an independent from Portland, Ore. "Deregulation is the wrong way to handle things, and McCain wants deregulation."

McCain, a longtime champion of deregulation, recently proposed a stepped-up federal role in righting the economy by having the government buy hundreds of billions of dollars worth of failed mortgages and restructure them to make them more affordable.

To win over these independents, "it's going to be, do they believe you have the solutions to solve the problems they're facing," said David Winston, a Republican pollster not employed by McCain.

Mike DuHaime, McCain's political director, said he believes independents will move toward the Arizona senator as they realize he's "spent his entire career being independent, a maverick, and bucked his party when he thought it was the right thing to do."

Indeed, independents questioned in the AP-GfK survey who like McCain tend to focus on his background.

Like Republicans, overwhelming numbers of them say McCain has the right experience for the White House. Some say his military service, including his five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, is important because of the Iraq war and the current U.S. economic agonies.

"The country needs more than the eloquent speaker," Jennifer Schroeder, 32, a bartender from Leipsic, Ohio, said of Obama. "It needs someone with a past that proves they do what they set out to do. We need someone who's been in a fight."

"He's been in Washington and he's served his country before and can relate better to the problems we're facing," said Chris Rodier, 41, a technical writer from Chillicothe, Ill.

Yet McCain has flopped with independents by another measure — his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate.

In the AP-GfK poll, independents gave the Alaska governor lower marks than McCain, Obama and Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden for caring about people like them, understanding the country's problems and having enough experience to be president. Just 22 percent of independents said she had the right background to be successful.

"She's got quite a bit to learn, but she's not running for president," said Robert Reynolds, 60, an independent and retired mechanic from Rochester, N.Y., who's backing McCain.

The AP-GfK poll gave Democrats a huge 40 percent to 29 percent advantage over Republicans, with another 23 percent calling themselves independents.

Republicans say that advantage will close by the Nov. 4 election. History suggests it may. Exit polls in presidential races since 1992 show the biggest edge in party identification by voters was a 4-percentage-point advantage Democrats had in 1996 and 2000.

Even so, independents have been closely divided in recent elections. President Bush and Democrat John Kerry split them about evenly in 2004, while Bush won them by 2 percentage points in 2000.

The AP-GfK poll was conducted Sept. 27-30 and included cell and landline telephone interviews with 161 likely independent voters, for whom the margin of sampling error is plus or minus 7.7 percentage points.

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Associated Press Director of Surveys Trevor Tompson and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.