There aren’t that many perks to attending a school in northeast Missouri. The winters are bitterly cold, there seem to be more tornadoes, and the nearest calzone is several counties away. I suppose if you like soybeans and Casey’s pizza then this place has all that you could ever want, but for St. Louis natives like myself we’re often left wanting. But if you count yourself among the politically engaged then there’s no place you’d rather be because just a short drive north of campus is the cradle of political civilization, Iowa. Every 4 years the political universe finds its center in Des Moines at the Iowa State Fairground and this August I decided to experience it first-hand. So, I woke up at 6AM and got in my car and began the 2-hour drive to Iowa.
For those unfamiliar, the Iowa State Fair is a political tradition during campaign season and has been visited by candidates for President dating back to Eisenhower. Currently the newspaper of record, the Des Moines Register, hosts an event called “the soapbox” where candidates are allotted 20 minutes to present their ideas to a crowd of onlookers. The event isn’t just covered by Iowan press but also by national outlets like the Washington Post, NBC, Fox, and even international media. The Iowa State Fair is an 11-day event that attracts over 1 million people (only 3 million people live in Iowa) and is an enormous undertaking. The candidates for President are spread out across different dates but they themselves are not the major draw for most attendees as the fair has so many different attractions. Ask yourself, would you rather spend 20 minutes with John Delaney or a deep fried twinkie on a stick? The question answers itself.
The drive through Iowa was rural to say the least, I frankly lost count of how many horse and buggies I passed. I was unaware at how beautiful the landscape was and how comparatively flat Missouri is, Iowa has lush rolling green hills which was a nice change of pace from the all too familiar hundred miles of row crops on I-70. It’s important to note that I’ve never attended a county fair let alone the Missouri State Fair, so I truly didn’t know what to expect because up until that point my largest festival of any kind was “Taste of St. Louis.” So, when it began to rain hard as I approached my highway exit, I figured that my drive had been for nothing and the fair wouldn’t open, but I didn’t account for the persistence of Iowans or the sheer scale of the event.
The first thing you notice when driving into Des Moines is all of the campaign signs. On the day of my visit Iowa was a full 176 days away from the caucus so everything seemed somewhat…premature. We’re not just talking about your expected Biden, Warren, or Sanders signs either we’re talking about a very prominent “Tim Ryan 2020” which was surreal. There were people in shirts handing out literature for Joe Sestak (yes, the Joe Sestak who lost to Pat Toomey in a Pennsylvania Senate race 9 years ago is running for President) and there’s a man on a lawn chair waving a homemade Tulsi flag at the cars waiting to enter the fairgrounds. It’s very reminiscent of a college tailgate actually, right down to people with signs in their grass offering to let you park on top of their child’s slip in slide for cheaper than you’d pay to park at the fairgrounds. There were not so surprisingly a lot of takers for off street front lawn parking as the line to get into the fairgrounds was several city blocks long. After waiting for about half an hour in line my car was rushed into the fairgrounds by a team of volunteers who were parking what seemed like a dozen cars a minute and there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of rows of cars requiring a shuttle for people parked at the furthest expanse of the greenspace now turned parking lot. Thinking about the rain earlier, I’m not sure that an approaching tornado could’ve cancelled the fair.
The first candidate to speak was former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld who you’ll remember from 2016 as he was the other half of the doomed libertarian ticket lead by Gary Johnson. At the time Weld was the only Republican challenger to President Trump but he has since been joined by Mark Sanford of Appalachian trail fame and Joe Walsh, a favorite of “resistors” despite his unabashed racism and Trump support as recently as last July. Again, despite how the media presents it, the political element of the Iowa State Fair is not the largest draw and so it’s not in any location of particular prominence that is easy to find. You can tell a lot about people by looking at what they value and while the soapbox was in some less obvious location of the fair, there was something prominently displayed…the butter cow. The butter cow is the stuff of legends, it is a 600-pound sculpture made of butter which is often accompanied by additional butter sculptures ranging from John Wayne, Elvis, and this year Sesame Street (and a working television set). The butter sculptures are housed in the agriculture building, which is furnished by prize winning crops, blue ribbon corn, the largest pumpkin (over 700 pounds!), and so on. Meanwhile the political soapbox is stationed outside the administration building, it’s a little raised stage with a couple hay bales on top for full Iowa effect and it’s across from novelty fair food stands. Not a whole lot of pomp accompanies the soapbox, just a few folding chairs next to the stage for people willing to show up early and rows and rows of press gorging themselves on fair food while sweating in the heat waiting for the next candidate to arrive (and they do wait, sometimes hours in between speeches).
After visiting with the butter cow, I made my way to the soapbox and I passed the WHO 13 corn kernel polling outfit where all the candidates had their pictures and an attached mason jar for fairgoers to “Cast their kernel” to signal support. Only 4 candidates had broken double digits, Biden, Buttigieg, Warren, and Harris in that order. Some jars were more popular than others, Marianne Williamson and Mayor Wayne Messam had only gathered a handful of kernels. It was unclear whether the voting was for anyone at the fair or just Iowans, but I left a kernel in Bernie’s jar and kept moving towards the soapbox. I made it to Bill Weld during the middle of his remarks and the crowd was…small to be polite. For reference on the GOP side, Trump had 97% of the kernels to Weld’s 3%. Ouch. Watching Weld was a lot like watching Morning Joe in the sense that I was seeing a Republican who was very mediocre in his presentation given an outlet simply because he loathes Donald Trump. Weld repeated the usual lines we’ve come to expect from NeverTrumpers, Russia this and Deficit that but there was a point when Weld lost the audience. On a question about gun control Weld said that he didn’t support universal background checks, a broadly popular position even in Iowa, and he was booed by the crowd to the amusement of the bored press forced to cover his speech. After Weld left the stage an assortment of characters presented themselves who would continue to reappear throughout the day. The first was an older gentleman in a sleeveless camouflage shirt wearing a trucker cap who was weirdly belligerent and seemed to have been at the fair for multiple days. He approached the press requesting to be interviewed and his question was the same “why do the Democrats have to disrespect our president?” There were also a group of young women wearing shirts for a non-profit related to Alzheimer’s research who occupied a block of seats and asked every candidate about Alzheimer’s research funding. Finally, there was an unnamed Democratic Party county level official with an overinflated sense of importance who talked as if he was the king-maker of Iowa politics and every candidate, including Barack Obama, owed their fortunes to him.
When Weld stopped speaking the rain stopped which probably isn’t a good omen for his campaign. I had a few hours to kill before the next candidate spoke, so I decided to embark on trying fair food. There were hundreds of food stands, some of them franchises and many serving similar items but there were some unique experiences that I have to share. First was the deep-fried bacon wrapped rib on a stick which was probably as close to a religious experience that any of us can hope to experience on Earth. Next was the classic fair food, the deep fried twinkie which was covered in powdered sugar and drizzled with chocolate sauce. Then there was a Canadian import, poutine which is French Fries sprinkled with cheese curds and served with hot brown gravy. Finally, there was the apple eggroll from Applishus which can only be described as everything you love about apple pie with the handheld mobility of an egg roll complete with cinnamon caramel dipping sauce. When I finished eating and exploring the fairgrounds it was time for the next candidate to speak, Tom Steyer. Money can’t buy you happiness, but it seems to be able to buy you one hell of a campaign organization because Steyer arrived with some fanfare to the soapbox. The type of swarm that surrounded him was unexpected given the fact that he’s polling in the low single digits nationally and I’d almost forgotten he was running.
Before he spoke a woman from the Des Moines Register gave a very practiced speech that she would repeat a number of times throughout the day. She told the audience to be “Iowa Nice” which was obvious code for “shut the hell up when the candidate is talking” and she also requested that we keep our signs down if we had any. Steyer walked out and gave an impassioned speech about the threat of climate change and the importance of defeating Donald Trump. He saved time for questions, much of which was eaten up but the Alzheimer’s group and the sleeveless wonder defending Trump’s honor. Then as quickly as he appeared, he was then gone again, disappearing behind the administration building to the press scrum to be questioned. The main event had yet to arrive, waiting through this cast of background characters in the 2020 was a formality for myself and many fairgoers who were waiting for the late afternoon when Sen. Bernie Sanders would speak. But admittedly I was disappointed at the day thus far. No of course I wasn’t going to vote for Weld or Steyer, but I would like to be heard and ask a question and so far, the opportunity had presented itself, perhaps because at every event I wasn’t directly in the candidates eyeline. Therefore, I resolved myself to be heard so I decided I was going to wait the 90 minutes between Steyer and the next candidate to make sure I got a prime position.
The next candidate to speak was Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado who had amassed a very large crowd but likely not because Iowa is Bennet country but rather directly following his remarks Bernie would take the stage. Bennet looks like what would happen if a company market tested what people think a politician should look like and then they created him in a lab. Bennet came with wrangler jeans and a blue dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, the standard uniform for a politician running for office. He was the first candidate I saw to bring his family; he brought his teen daughters and wife who stood at the side of the stage watching as Bennet spoke. He placed one leg on a hay bale and began to speak and although I’m no fan of Bennet I will say that he had the best delivery of the day so far. Then came the questions, I raised my hand and to my surprise we locked eyes and he pointed to me. Then some of the cameras pivoted to me in the crowd and the pressure was on and I knew that I needed to ask him about healthcare. So, I asked him about Medicare-for-All and why he opposes it and wouldn’t his plan for a public option necessarily lead to means testing. It was clear that he did not appreciate the question, nor did he appreciate the positive audience response. At first, he tried to deny that his plan would lead to means testing and for some reason that answer in addition to having the crowd on my side lead me to heckle him. He said it wasn’t means testing I yelled “Oh yes it is!” and then he said he said Medicare- for-All was dangerous and I yelled “Says the guy with a government healthcare plan” and when he said that he appreciated what Bernie brought to the debate my comment of “Well drop out and endorse him!” got the crowd laughing and Sen. Bennet started to get worked up. At one point he was basically screaming into his microphone and the crowd of onlookers just looked dazed as he wrapped up his remarks.
Then the main event arrived. A plane flew overhead with a banner that said “Sen. Joni Ernst…WHAT THE FLOOD? – League of Conservation Voters” and there was pandemonium in the street. There were suddenly thousands of people, some hanging in trees, others banging makeshift drums, there was a sea of red MAGA hats yelling into the crowd, screaming throngs of college students, and an army of young frazzled volunteers handing out signs to the roaring masses. Then in the distance there was the sound of a hundred cameras shuttering all at once, a ball of mass slowly working its way through the crowd and in the middle just barely visible was a tuft of uncombed white hair. It was Bernie.
Bernie couldn’t stop moving or else he would’ve been swamped and perhaps he would’ve never made the stage. He didn’t stop for pictures and people reached out their hands to touch him and he let them often grabbing hands but there were always more coming at him in a constant stream, the scene reminded me of old pictures of Bobby Kennedy out on the trail. The Bennet people were quickly pushed out and Bernie’s people were hustled to the soapbox area. Bernie stood next to his wife Jane, both peering out at the massive crowd that stretched out in all directions while they waited for the woman from the DMR to finish her “Iowa nice” speech. When she did, he took the stage and there was an audible boom from the crowd and chants of “Bernie!” with signs waving and horns blasting, the rules of Iowa nice abandoned for the Senator from Vermont. The crowd took a long time to be settled but they followed Bernie’s remarks closely, on time for every applause line and with a vigor that is usually reserved for rock stars. Bernie spoke straight for 20 minutes about healthcare, the environment, wages, and the fundamentals that his campaign has been built around. He didn’t take a single question and the crowd didn’t care, when he began to leave the stage the crowd rushed behind the building scrambling to get into the press scrum which had been roped off in anticipation of the crowd reaction to Bernie. Hundreds of people lined the area behind the cameras clamoring for a chance to see Bernie up close, they stood quietly as to not interrupt their candidate during his interviews but there was a hum among those gathered.
Finally, the candidate finished his interviews but whether it was because of the heat, a prior engagement, or the daunting task of giving time to so many enthusiastic supporters, Bernie simply waved said “Thank You!” and left the fair. There wasn’t a person standing who wasn’t a little disappointed they couldn’t meet Bernie, but they still chanted his name as he walked away. It was truly unlike anything I’ve ever seen. After some time, the crowd dispersed, and I thought very briefly about staying another hour to listen to New York Mayor Bill deBlasio but that wasn’t a particularly appealing idea, so I decided it was time to call it a day. I left the fair, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it. There was something charming about the entire experience that I would recommend to everyone regardless of their political engagement.
I’ve often questioned whether Iowa ought to be the first in the nation primary. After all it is much whiter, older, and rural than the rest of America. There are states that are certainly more representative of not just America but the Democratic electorate, like Illinois or New Jersey. But there is value in Iowa, to win it you need more than name recognition or money, you need visibility and a strong field program. Developing those things can help a candidate win a national election and if you can’t do well in Iowa, you probably don’t have the campaign skills to become President. With bigger states and lower-information electorates, it might be enough to just buy $50 million dollars of TV ads. But with Iowa candidates must go to union halls, VFWs, churches, rotary clubs, universities, people’s living rooms, and engage every part of the electorate. That’s good and it gives underdogs the chance to compete. Without Iowa we may not have known the strength of Barack Obama or the weakness of Hillary Clinton or have ever seriously changed the political debate with Bernie Sanders. Iowa encourages candidates to remember the grassroots and see voters as something other than numbers, and the Iowa State Fair for all its wackiness is an important part of the process.