Presidential Hopefuls Enjoy the 'Family Reunion' That Is the Iowa State Fair

Bernie Sanders with wife Jane (left) at the Iowa State Fair. Photo Credit: Charlie Neibergall/AP/Shutterstock
August 12, 2019

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

Stepping through the gates at the Iowa State Fair, your senses are immediately assaulted by the sound of rides whooshing through the air, the smell of food in the fryer, and the sight of thousands of people stretched as far as the eye can see.

The fair is a tradition for a lot of Iowans who make an annual pilgrimage from across the state to Des Moines. Just for context, in 2018, the fair welcomed a record 1.1 million people. The state's population? 3.1 million.

Iowans told Cheddar that they love the fair for the people-watching, the food, and the rides. One woman shared that coming to the fair every year "feels like a family reunion with people who aren't even your family." Amid all the festivities, fairgoers have another fair tradition to contend with — presidential candidates.

Iowa is the first state in the nation to cast primary votes through its caucus process. The Iowa Caucuses might be confusing to outsiders, but the tradition is fiercely protected by the people who call this state home. Everyone we spoke to, even those who complained about the politics in their state, told us that they caucus.

Come February 3, 2020, Iowans will gather together in precincts for a discussion with other members of their party. They will then cast a vote for a specific candidate, after hearing everyone out. A win here in Iowa can set the tone for the rest of the primary season.

That's why presidential candidates come here early and often. The Iowa State Fair is the best opportunity to get in front of a lot of people in a state that could swing the balance of the campaign. As one activist told Cheddar, it's especially important for rural voters. The fair might be the first and only time they've seen one of these candidates.

It's those rural voters, farmers in particular, who stand out against the backdrop of one of the biggest agricultural fairs in the country. Top agricultural products in Iowa include soybeans, corn, pork and beef. These are also all products targeted by China's retaliatory tariffs in the U.S.-China trade war.

The Iowa Pork tent is a hot spot, literally with glowing grills all around, but especially for candidates. When Senator Kamala Harris came for her turn over the grill, a mom in line to buy Iowa's famous pork chops crouched down and told her daughter "that's our next President." Harris enjoyed one of the largest crowds of reporters and campaign staff following her around the fair. But it's the pork tent where she shared her love of food, telling the pork producers her own recipe for chops. After the crowd died down, we asked pork producers just how the tariffs are affecting their industry. One Iowa pig farmer told us that this is short term pain and his duty as an American to get the technology concerns worked out. Plus, as he said, it's important to "make sure that we've got fair trade deals, or we'll end up right back here again."

Despite the face time with the people who drive the pork industry here in Iowa, most farmers seem to be sticking by President Donald Trump through the trade disputes, though some did acknowledge that patience is wearing thin.

You cannot separate Iowa from the farming history that built the state. So even as candidates come to take a selfie with the butter cow or chow down on fried food, it is important for Iowans to hear just how each person plans to tackle the growing challenges for rural Americans.

Remember that this is a state that swung decisively from Barack Obama in 2012 to Donald Trump in 2016. Democrats who want to push a swing back to blue will need a big showing at the caucuses and a platform that Iowans can get behind.

As each campaign swung by the Des Moines Register soapbox stage for a speech and questions, they're asked repeatedly about issues that matter to the people here: health care, support for rural communities and education.

That is one of the most remarkable things about coming out on the campaign trail. The bubble that seems to exist around Washington becomes so much more apparent when you ask Iowans about the Mueller testimony or Jeffrey Epstein's death. We spent days without hearing or asking about either of these major stories and Iowans didn't bring it up.

What they did bring up was their concerns about each candidate. They tend to have a top-two or top-four: a group of people they're considering that they like a lot. The fair can push that over the top.

One of the best places at the Iowa State Fair to gauge just how well candidates are doing in Iowa is at the WHO-TV Corn Kernel tent. The local news station sets up Mason jars for each candidate and gives every fairgoer over the age of 18 a corn kernel. They then put their kernel in the candidates' jar who they want to win.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Trump ran the Republican side of the table. But the enthusiasm on the Democrats side was fascinating to watch. While former Vice President Joe Biden took an early lead, on Monday afternoon, Pete Buttigieg had taken a comfortable second place.

While I stood there observing, nearly every Democrat who voted, dropped their kernel in for the South Bend, Indiana mayor. One Buttigieg supporter, watching another cast her vote exclaimed in surprise, "She's voting for Pete!"

That's the kind of encounter that makes facetime at the fair so important to these campaigns. Nearly every Iowan we met across four days in the state had a lot to say about politics. But just as it can get weary for the journalists on the trail, it is weary for the people who live here too. Several people just simply didn't want to talk about politics on camera. Some declined to talk about it off camera. One man told me that he didn't talk about politics with anyone ⁠— something that is probably tough for many Iowans to admit.

So as candidate hit the rides and games in Thrill Ville, cast their own kernel, flip pork chops, or grab a fried snack, the thousands of people walking around them at the fair still have nearly six months to decide just how they're going to caucus.

That's why Iowans know that every four years their Iowa corn dog will come with a side of crowded sidewalks as the media, campaign workers, and even regular people push for access to the people vying for votes here in the Hawkeye State. It's a frustration some people cherish, like the political activist who said the Soapbox is his favorite fair tradition. But for others, the caucuses cannot come soon enough.