Iowa and New Hampshire traditionally offer presidential candidates vastly different political landscapes when they seek their party nominations. Yet legalizing gay marriage, as both states have now done, is unlikely to have much impact in 2012 because of party dynamics and the different emphasis voters place on social issues.
Gay marriage became legal in Iowa in April after the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that denying gays the right to marry is discriminatory. In New Hampshire, the Legislature approved a gay-marriage bill Wednesday that will take effect Jan. 1.
While some see opposition to gay marriage easing nationwide, that's not the case among Iowa Republicans — especially the relatively small number who dominate the state's leadoff precinct caucuses. Social and religious conservatives dominate that group, and their opposition to gay marriage is solid.
To be competitive among Iowa Republicans, presidential candidates likely will have to toe that line, key strategists said.
"I'm guessing that most of the serious candidates will be for a constitutional amendment to define marriage," said David Roederer, a veteran activist who managed John McCain's campaign in the state. "I don't think there's going to be much of a difference."
Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Christian Alliance, said the debate over gay marriage is part of a larger discussion of what he sees as the declining social culture of the country. Candidates must address that, he said, and gay marriage is a key element.
"I think there's a whole wide range of issues they need to address — the state of our economy, the decline of our culture. All of those things have to be put on the table," said Scheffler. "It's absolutely essential, and it would behoove them to talk about it. I don't think they can dodge it or duck."
Economy in the forefront
That isn't the case in New Hampshire, where Republicans tend to be more fiscally conservative and socially moderate. New Hampshire has allowed civil unions since 2008; Iowa never allowed them.
"When presidential candidates campaign here, they have traditionally focused on the economy, foreign policy, health care," said political analyst Dean Spiliotes. "Social issues have never really played a major role here in the campaign."
A poll conducted by Dartmouth College in May found New Hampshire voters evenly split on gay marriage. Broken down by party, gay marriage had the support of 63 percent of Democrats, 43 percent of undeclared voters and 17 percent of Republicans.
Although the two states vote only days apart, candidates have a history of switching gears between Iowa and New Hampshire and will continue to do so, Spiliotes said, pointing to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won Iowa's GOP caucus in 2008.
"When he was in Iowa, it was all about social conservatism, and then when he came to New Hampshire, that almost completely vanished," he said. "So I don't think that it's going to have a huge impact on how people campaign here because I think to some extent, the state already had the reputation for being more libertarian, if not more moderate."
New Hampshire's primaries are open to independents, who outnumber those registered with either party and hold significant sway. Many are likely to vote Republican in 2012 if President Barack Obama seeks re-election and faces no primary opposition.
In Iowa, there's very little party switching or involvement by independents, and history shows that a relatively small number of the parties' hard-core activists determine the outcome. Giving an easy victory to Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, speaks volumes of the mindset of the Republican activists who dominate the party and the precinct caucuses.
"We've gone so far to the social right, particularly in caucus attendees, that unless you meet certain litmus tests, you have a very difficult time competing in Iowa," said Doug Gross, the party's 2002 gubernatorial nominee.
Gay marriage might pose a different kind of litmus test in New Hampshire, said Jennifer Donahue, political director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.
"The way people interpret this issue tells more about their feelings about government's role in their personal lives than it does about gay marriage," she said. "It becomes almost a litmus test for the candidates as to how libertarian they are."