This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

New Hampshire's Republican presidential primary has a reputation as an oasis in the desert for moderate candidates. A new poll underlines exactly why.

While social conservatives dominate other early states in the GOP nominating process, New Hampshire Republicans are divided or even slightly left-leaning on two major social issues, according to the latest survey from Suffolk University.

A slight plurality of the state's 2016 GOP primary voters, 49 percent, describe themselves as "pro-choice" on the issue of abortion, while 41 percent called themselves "pro-life." On a national level, pro-life Republicans control their party by big margins (69 percent to 27 percent, Gallup found last year). But the New Hampshire voters who will help pick the party's nominee are further left.

Those voters are the ones who give candidates who are more moderate or less focused on social issues—such as Jeb Bush—a chance to build some momentum in one early primary. Bush led the poll with 19 percent support. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was in second with 14 percent. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz languished with 5 percent.

The same is true on the issue of same-sex marriage. Asked whether they favored legalizing same-sex marriage, 43 percent of the New Hampshire respondents said yes while 39 percent said no. Last year, just 30 percent of Republicans supported gay marriage in another Gallup poll.

The numbers help explain why New Hampshire is such an important state for moderate Republican candidates, or at least ones who aren't as focused on social issues. That focus is part of Cruz's primary strategy, given that many Republicans have de-emphasized social issues like same-sex marriage after consecutive presidential election defeats. But New Hampshire is an early state that allows moderate candidates to avoid social litmus tests. Not only are the voters split on two key issues, but barely any ranked either issue as one of the most important ones facing the country.

Meanwhile, on either side of New Hampshire, social conservatives dominate the early GOP nominating contests. According to 2012 exit polls, people identifying as born-again or evangelical Christians comprised more than half of Republican voters in Iowa and South Carolina, the two states sandwiching New Hampshire on the calendar.

A key reason why the New Hampshire GOP electorate is so moderate is that less than 60 percent of it is actually made up of registered Republicans. New Hampshire has an open primary system, meaning someone doesn't have to be a member of a political party to vote in that party's primary. More than one-third of the respondents in Suffolk's poll are independents.

That number could climb even higher if, as some expect, Hillary Clinton maintains a lock on a drama-less Democratic primary. In 2012, exit polls estimated that more than half of GOP primary voters in New Hampshire weren't registered Republicans.

So while New Hampshire primary voters might not all be members of the GOP, they don't have to be in order to help determine who wins the state's important early primary. After all, New Hampshire propelled both John McCain and Mitt Romney forward after losses in Iowa in the past two elections, and it could happen again in 2016.

Suffolk polled 500 likely Republican primary voters from March 21 to March 24. The survey's margin of error is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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