Philip Rucker and Robert Costa of the Washington Post observe that:
The national debate over an Indiana religious-liberties law seen as anti-gay has drawn the entire field of Republican presidential contenders into the divisive culture wars, which badly damaged Mitt Romney in 2012 and which GOP leaders eagerly sought to avoid in the 2016 race.
As the GOP hopefuls scramble to bolster their conservative credentials by backing the law, the question must be asked: how will that play in the Granite State?
The conventional wisdom holds that Iowa GOP caucus goers will respond to those candidates who appear to be staunch conservatives, thus driving the candidates’ willingness to embrace such controversial legislation.
History tells a somewhat different story, however. Ronald Reagan never won Iowa until he ran for re-election in 1984, having previously lost to Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush — hardly darlings of the right. Bush 41 also topped Pat Robertson in 1988, and Bob Dole edged out Pat Buchanan in 1996. In 2000, the candidates with the strongest credentials on conservative social issues, Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer, came in a distant third and fourth.
In recent presidential election cycles, the tide in the first caucus state has turned a bit — but only slightly. Mike Huckabee had a convincing win over Mitt Romney in 2008, while Rick Santorum barely eked out a victory in 2012 — albeit only after all the votes were counted and well after it was of any value to the former Pennsylvania senator.
Alas, I can’t — and don’t — claim to be an expert on Iowa politics, so let’s turn our eyes to something I do know something about. Here in New Hampshire, Pat Buchanan pulled out a victory over Bob Dole in 1996, but otherwise the first-in-the-nation primary has held true to the perception that it is receptive to candidates who may not be as vocal about social issues — notably Romney and McCain. That isn’t to say they can be perceived as liberal on such matters, but most who have succeeded here have not made these views front-and-center in their campaigns.
In 2016, if Republican candidates do get drawn in to the “culture wars,” the polling data indicates it could be problematic for them next February 9. A recent NBC/Marist survey found that only 18 percent of potential Republican primary voters in New Hampshire find opposition to same-sex marriage “totally acceptable.” Among the GOP primary electorate, the combination of totally/mostly unacceptable edged out totally/mostly acceptable 47-46.
As important, this roughly equal split was essentially replicated even among self-described “conservative” or “very conservative” voters.
Even accounting for the fact that the Indiana law might be perceived slightly differently by New Hampshire voters since it didn’t deal directly with same-sex marriage, the results can serve as a reasonable proxy and would seem to suggest that Republican candidates must contemplate LGBT issues carefully since hardline conservative positions have the potential to close off access to a large swath of potential primary voters.
Carly Fiorina spoke with Dan Tuohy of the New Hampshire Union Leader and attempted to put discussion of this potentially divisive issue into a different perspective:
“I think everybody needs to take a deep breath … This was not about discrimination. It never has been.” … Fiorina said people need to step back, or “cool off,” and recognize that discrimination of any kind is not condoned and that religious liberty can be protected. “Our country was built on tolerance and difference of opinion,” she said.
Nevertheless, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence seems to be backpedaling pretty aggressively in the face of national criticism over the legislation. In fact, he has called for a new bill to “fix” the original one.
Of course, if the Republican field remains large when New Hampshire voters head to the polls next February, it’s possible that the candidate who generates the greatest appeal among social conservatives could rise to the top. That would be similar to the 1996 outcome when Pat Buchanan claimed victory with less than 28 percent of the vote in a large field.
Social conservative activists in the Granite State certainly are well organized and have a loud voice and strong grassroots support. They may not make up a majority of the primary electorate, but even those who may not be with them all of the time have sympathy for many of the issues they advocate.
Ultimately, each campaign and candidate will need to search their souls and decide what’s the right political strategy and how their own personal convictions fit in. But the New Hampshire polling data serves as a cautionary note to those who would reflexively embrace the Indiana law and other similar issues in a desire to appear as conservative as possible.
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