The Democratic presidential candidates are converging at the Iowa State Fair this week, jostling for attention as they deliver their speeches from the soapbox. They will have a chance to flip pork chops, visit the famed Butter Cow and cheer on the junior ranchers and farmers who are trying their hand at mutton busting.
Inevitably, most of them will be coaxed into eating meat on a stick. (This year, the featured delicacy is bacon-wrapped-bacon).
Of all the presidential race traditions, the fair visit ranks somewhere near the top. It is a chance for candidates to galvanize their volunteers in this crucial early caucus state, and introduce themselves to families from all over Iowa who converge in Des Moines to sample the delights of the fair.
It may feel as though the race for the Democratic nomination has been well underway for many months, but the Iowa State Fair will be a first introduction to the candidates for many voters in the Hawkeye state. Though contenders like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have all campaigned extensively across this state, the size of the field has been daunting and many voters say they are just getting to know the candidates.
While the fair gives candidates a chance to push their message at the soapbox, their visits are most important as a way for voters to test their relatability, veteran Republican Iowa strategist Dave Kochel said.
“If you can’t have a beer at the Bud tent, look comfortable standing in a cattle barn, or eat a corn dog without embarrassing yourself, you probably aren’t going anywhere in the Iowa caucuses,” said Kochel, who presided over Mitt Romney’s Iowa campaign among many others. “Campaigns need to understand that the Iowa State Fair creates far more chances to fail than to succeed, but it’s an important gauntlet if you want a ticket punched out of Iowa.”
Sean Bagniewski, the chairman of the Polk County Democrats who likes to say the fair is the “most important political event in human history,” describes the fair as a “rite of passage for presidential candidates.”
“It’s a rare opportunity to get all the candidates out of the rallies, the fundraisers, and debates and actually see how they interact with everyday people,” he said. “From the soapbox stage to the corn dog tent, this is one of the best opportunities for Iowans to meet their presidential candidates one-on-one.”
A new Monmouth Poll released on Thursday underscored the fluidity of the race here. Former vice president Joe Biden topped the field with 28%. Warren was in second at 19% – another sign of her slow and steady rise. And with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points, Harris, Sanders, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg were essentially tied in third place at 11%, 9% and 8% respectively. The rest of the field was at 3% or less.
Biden also led the other candidates in a June CNN poll, which was weighted to account for voters who are likely to caucus in person next February and those who will participate in the new virtual caucusing system. At that juncture in the race, Warren, Sanders and Buttigieg were all in close contention for second place.
Determined to show her intention to compete in Iowa, Harris began her first bus tour Thursday from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River. The California senator will stop by the fair in the midst of that five-day sprint from Sioux City to Davenport. On Thursday morning, she also became the first top-tier candidate to air an ad on Iowa television featuring her 3 a.m. agenda.
While all good candidates are briefed on fair etiquette – be polite, don’t skip the line and make sure to buy your own food in cash without an entourage of aides around you – the Iowa State Fair has been the site of some notable gaffes over the years.
It was at the soapbox in 2011 where Mitt Romney engaged with a heckler and uttered the now infamous line “Corporations are people, my friend.”
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson supposedly showed up at the fair in 2007 in designer loafers and never recovered – though he claimed in a 2011 National Review column that the story was false.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am prepared to take the oath: I am not now, and never have a been, a wearer of Gucci shoes. I have never tried a pair on. I have never been alone in the same room with a Gucci shoe,” Thompson wrote in 2011. “And I most certainly was not wearing a pair while I was visiting the pigs in Iowa.”
It should be noted however that Donald Trump still won his bid for the Republican nomination after breaking all the traditional rules at the Iowa State Fair.
He skipped the soapbox and arrived in a $7 million helicopter, later offering rides to children and unnerving Hillary Clinton’s aides by circling low over the fair. He did, however, gamely meander the stalls, sampling turkey legs, bacon-wrapped ribs and red velvet funnel cake.
The then-GOP candidate left the fair in a golf cart, proclaiming the visit a success.
“You see the love. I mean this is the love,” he told a CNN reporter as he departed in August of 2015.
Six months later, his rival Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucuses – but Trump vanquished Clinton in the Hawkeye State that November, flipping the state from blue to red with a clean 51.7%.