WASHINGTON — More than half the states holding presidential contests next month on Super Tuesday allow unaffiliated voters to participate, giving millions of independents a chance to shape what is usually an insider affair among Democratic and Republican loyalists.
Two of those states -- California and New Jersey -- together have nearly 6 million unaffiliated voters who will be allowed to cast ballots in the Feb. 5 contests.
The open voting is widely considered to benefit Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, who have fared well among independents in recent polls and primaries.
Jack Pitney, a former deputy research director for the Republican National Committee and a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, said turnout probably will be high among independents because of the wide-open contests in each party. But it's tricky to predict the impact, he and others said.
In winning South Carolina's primary Saturday, for example, Obama drew 42 percent of voters describing themselves as independents, compared with 26 percent for Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton, according to exit polls.
But he had similar advantages among independents in New Hampshire and Nevada, yet lost both states as Clinton won stronger support from core Democrats.
"It makes a difference at the margin," Pitney said. "I don't know of any cases where independents by themselves have decided a nomination, but in a very close contest, they might be able to tip it one way or another."
Fifteen of the 24 states holding contests on Super Tuesday have some form of flexible voting system. Some are wide open, allowing voters to cast ballots in either party regardless of political affiliation. Others have semi-open primaries, allowing unaffiliated voters to participate if they register with a party on the day of the primary.
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