By Gabriel Debenedetti

Oct 19 (Reuters) - In today's highly polarized political environment it is somewhat surprising to find voters who backed John McCain in 2008 and now support President Barack Obama, but they exist.

Roughly 5 percent of respondents in Reuters/Ipsos polls said they chose the Republican contender in 2008 and will switch to Obama in 2012. This number peaked at around 9 percent two separate times over the summer, according to data collected since January.

Who are these defectors?

Jeff Waltrip, 56, is a retired electrician and retail worker who has voted Republican all his life. But in his view Obama "has done a good job with what he was left with, and I truly believe that allowing Mitt Romney in there is going to make the world a whole lot worse than it is now." Waltrip said he liked the Republican ticket in 2008 because McCain is a veteran and because Sarah Palin "made me laugh."

The McCain-to-Obama switchers are 55 percent male, and 34 percent of them are 55 or older. (Overall, Obama trails Romney 34 percent to 52 percent among white men over 50.) About 72 percent of them are white.

They are largely from the East Coast; nearly 4 in 10 live in the mid- or South Atlantic. Nearly 3 in 10 finished their education after high school, and nearly 2 in 10 have a bachelor's degree.

Two-thirds say they are absolutely going to vote, choosing "10" on a 1-10 scale for likelihood of voting.

Even though 38 percent of all voters believe the economy is the election's most prominent issue, just one-third of the McCain defectors agree. Character matters more.

"Right now if I had to choose it would be Obama, because he's more personable," said William Holliday, a 58-year-old retiree from Convis Township, Michigan. "Romney has changed his position so many damn times, you don't know what he thinks at all. But they're both liars."

Holliday said that in general he leans Republican. "I did vote for McCain four years ago in spite of the fact he picked Palin. Because I thought that was a cheap trick he pulled there." He worries that if Romney is elected he will put "Cheney and Rumsfeld back in there to run the show."

Jeffrey Baker, 56, a retiree in Strong, Maine, thinks Romney's refusal to release his taxes disqualifies him. "If you can't be honest from the start, I don't want you in the Oval Office," he said. Romney, whose personal worth has been estimated at roughly $250 million, has faced criticism from Democrats for not releasing enough years' worth of his tax returns.

"Four years ago I voted for John McCain because I thought he was more experienced, and I thought we needed someone with some military background," Baker said. "Mitt Romney - I don't believe he has the experience that's needed. He's a businessman, he knows how to make money. That's all well and good, but we've got people to worry about."

Baker is unhappy with the entire campaign. "There's nothing going on. No information, no nothing," he said. "Everybody says they're going to do this, they're going to do that. But nobody says how they're going to do it."

He's basing his vote on a general sense that "Obama is more for the whole country than Romney is," alluding to the leaked video. "Romney, that's his honest feelings. He doesn't really care about the 47 percent."

Waltrip also believes Romney is out of touch with lower-income Americans, and he mistrusts the candidate's religious convictions.

"I've always felt like the Mormon Church was more of a cult," Waltrip said. "I'm sort of afraid that his interests are going to be strictly for the Mormon Church."

Overall about 34 percent of likely voters said they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate if he or she were Mormon, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted during the week ending Oct. 21.

The defectors to Obama remain a smaller subset of respondents than those who voted for him in 2008 and now support Romney. The Reuters/Ipsos polling shows 10 percent of voters plan to cross the aisle in that direction.

(The Reuters/Ipsos database is now public and searchable here: tinyurl.com/reuterspoll) (Editing by Prudence Crowther)

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