As the many GOP presidential candidates crisscross the state courting voters, you hear a lot about the economy, ISIS, immigration, the threats of Iran, Russian and China. You’ll hear far less, however, about the hot-button issue of gay marriage, addressed just two weeks ago in a landmark court decision. And that’s probably good politics in New Hampshire.
In 2009, New Hampshire became the first state to pass same-sex marriage without court involvement. It was controversial at the time, but in the 6 years since, the policy has gained broad local acceptance. A poll taken in May by Bloomberg News and St. Anselm College found fully half of likely GOP primary voters here favor extending gay marriage rights nationwide.
Now that the nation’s highest court has done just that, lots of New Hampshire Republicans, even those who personally oppose it, like Steve Dunn, a retired corporate headhunter from Nashua, say they consider the issue settled.
"I don’t believe in same sex marriage, but I’m not going to say that can’t happen, or you can’t come to my store and buy anything," Dunn said. "I don’t understand it, but so be it. It’s the law of the land; it’s done."
The Republican presidential candidates, none of whom support same sex marriage rights, are rarely so direct when they discuss the issue. Instead, what they tend to do is blame the messenger:
"What we have now is people on the Supreme court that think it is their job to act as supervisor of the political branches."
"I think you have activist judges who decided what the law should be, instead of what the law is."
"They are not there to make social policy. They are there to interpret the laws passed by congress and signed by the president, that’s it."
That was Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, and Chris Christie campaigning here in the wake of the Supreme Court rulings. All were responding to questions from voters or reporters. None of the candidates brought it up unbidden.
According to UNH pollster Andy Smith, any candidates hoping to draw broad support in New Hampshire would be wise to take a similar approach.
"Talking about activist judges is a way to talk about the issue of gay marriage without talking about the substance of gay marriage itself, and I think that’s something that’s going to fit in with the mindset of most people in New Hampshire," Smith said.
So far that logic even seems to apply to candidates out to court New Hampshire's most conservative voters. Dr. Ben Carson, for example, spoke for close to an hour in Bedford this week without ever alluding to gay marriage. Afterwards, Carson acknowledged the issue is tough for social conservatives to negotiate.
"And I’ve asked the question many times: What position can a person like myself take, who has absolutely nothing against gay people, nothing, but believes in traditional marriage, that is acceptable to them?"
But New Hampshire, one of the most secular states in the country, isn’t the only place GOP candidates are fighting for traction. In Iowa – which also has same-sex marriage, but where evangelical Christians dominate the Republican electorate – candidates like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal are likely to tread less lightly.
"Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman that was established by God. It cannot be altered by an earthly court," Jindal said in the wake of last month's Supreme Court decision.
One political effect of the ruling could be to deepen the fault lines dividing New Hampshire and Iowa.
"You can’t just put an airtight lid on New Hampshire and pretend what you say in Iowa is not going leak out here. I mean there’s a reason why Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, all those Iowa winners came here and did very little," says Dante Scala, a political scientist at UNH.
In fact, no non-incumbent Republican has ever carried the two earliest voting states. The gay marriage ruling will likely make doing so even harder.