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Iowa and New Hampshire Gay support split going into critical early presidential primaries
Iowa and New Hampshire Gay support split going into critical early presidential primaries
by Lisa Keen - SGN Contributing Writer

Just two weeks out from the first presidential caucus and primary, the Gay vote in Iowa and New Hampshire is not reliably behind any one candidate.

Sure, contributions to Democrats in the nation's Gayest zip codes appear to give Hillary Clinton a significant edge over Barack Obama and John Edwards. Sure, a pre-selected internet population of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual consumers nationally shows Clinton with a hefty lead.

But while the national data suggest that Gays are leaning more strongly toward Clinton than are Democrats generally, interviews with Gays in Iowa and New Hampshire paint a different picture - one that looks more muddled and mirrors voters in those key early states.

Take a look at the last seven national polls of Democrats - the average of those polls shows Clinton leading with 43% of the vote, followed by Obama with 26%, Edwards with 13%, and five others splitting 18%. The Hunter College survey, released this month, showed that 63% of LGB consumers nationally supported Clinton, 22% supported Obama, with the remaining 15% being spread out over five other Democratic candidates. Federal Elections Commission reports through October (the latest available) on contributions to the candidates show that in the nation's Gayest zip codes, Clinton leads with 51% of contributions to the top three polling Democrats, followed by Obama with 38%, and Edwards with 11%.

Now look at the four latest New Hampshire polls. As of December 13, Clinton had only a three-point lead over Obama, with a margin of error of plus or minus three points. Edwards is in third, 12 points behind Obama. In Iowa, the average of five polls, as of December 17, shows Obama three points ahead of Clinton with a three-point margin of error. And Clinton has only a two-point lead over Edwards. And in both states, interviews with Gay activists suggest the Gay voting block is also diffuse.

Interviews with activists in these two states suggest a similar phenomenon. New Hampshire State Rep. Jim Splaine, who led the successful push for civil unions in that state this year, is backing Clinton; State Rep. Mo Baxley, who heads up the state's only statewide Gay organization, is for Edwards. In Iowa, long-time Democratic and Gay activist Dave Tingwald is for Obama; activist Carlton Burns is for Joe Biden; and Janelle Rettig is a precinct captain for Clinton.

"GLBT folks are divided up more this year than in any other," says Rettig, an observation that was echoed time and again by activists in both states. "We have three openly out elected officials here in Johnson County. One is with Clinton, one with Obama, and one, I'm unsure. I know GLBT folks with [Bill] Richardson."

Ray Buckley, the openly Gay chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, says Gay voters in the Granite State are "really, really spread out - right across the spectrum."

The state's Freedom to Marry group just announced its endorsement of Edwards and the vote, says Mo Baxley, was "close."

The group took great pains to solicit meetings with the candidates, examine their records and policy statements, and even talk to their Gay constituents in their home states. Support for Clinton inside the group suffered from the candidate's decision not to accept the group's invitation to meet. Obama met with the group, in a basement room of a civic arena after he appeared at a large gathering with talk show host Oprah Winfrey. But he stumbled on his answer to the group's query about the inclusion of anti-Gay gospel singer Donnie McClurkin in a campaign event in South Carolina, says Baxley. John Edwards met with the group on its own turf -the Freedom to Marry office-and was "no holds barred."

"His answers felt sincere," said Baxley.

Edwards has kept up a steady drumbeat for Gay support, even going into Iowa. The campaign sent out a notice December 14 saying it was sending former National Stonewall Democrats executive director Eric Stern to Cedar Rapids and Iowa City to encourage support for the former senator.

But in Iowa, Joe Biden was the first presidential candidate to meet with a group of Gays - Connections, in Iowa City - and the event was broadcast on C-SPAN. The non-partisan group did not make an endorsement, but its founder and president, Carlton Burns, is supporting Biden.

"I like his strong, straightforward answers on Gay issues," says Burns, recalling a CNN debate forum in June in which Biden called the military's "don't ask/don't tell" policy of excluding Gays "ridiculous" and said General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was "flat wrong" for his comments in support of the policy.

But asked how other Gays are leaning, Burns says "it runs the gamut - it is incredibly split."

Dave Tingwald, who has been active as both a Democratic party activist and a Gay activist in Iowa City, agrees.

"I don't think there's a consensus growing," says Tingwald. "There are a lot of undecided voters." Tingwald is not one of them. He's supporting Obama.

"I like his judgment, his leadership, his ability to tell the truth simply, and people believe him," says Tingwald. The defining moment for Tingwald was an Obama television ad that promised to protect Social Security benefits.

"I would like to see any of the candidates support full social equality for Gays as part of the platform," says Tingwald, "but that's not the case. All the major Democratic candidates will advance LGBT equality but they're wrong on marriage. We have to accept that and move on."

Katie Imborek, a graduate student at the University of Iowa, said both health care and LGBT rights are priorities for her.

"I'm honestly torn currently between Barack and Hillary," she says.

Although the Gay voting bloc in Iowa may be split, it is interested. One Iowa, a statewide Gay group, hosted several "Equality Workshops" with the Human Rights Campaign in locations throughout the state last week. In Ames, 24 out of 27 people who attended pledged to show up at the caucus January 3. The response was promising enough that HRC and One Iowa scheduled additional workshops this week.

New Hampshire's Buckley says the fact that the Gay vote in New Hampshire and Iowa is spread out "is nothing new."

"We aren't a tight-knit group; we're very large, diverse, and influential," says Buckley. And, noting that a diverse voting bloc increases pressure on candidates to answer questions on Gay issues more completely, says Buckley, "it's the best thing that we are."

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