Summer vacation at the Iowa State Fair

A SEA OF faces greeted Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, when he spoke at the Iowa State Fair. A full-size cow, sculptured in butter, is displayed in a large refrigerator with a picture window for viewing. People waited patiently, almost reverently, for a glimpse or a photo. Sue Groves photos

Jay Miller
Contributing Writer

A few months ago, my wife, Sue, and I were trying to decide where to go for a summer getaway.

“I know,” Sue said, ‘let’s go to Iowa to the state fair.”

Well, of all the places I’d never been, Iowa probably placed somewhere near the bottom of my bucket list.

You might think my wife was inspired by all the movies we’ve seen that were set in Iowa. “Field of Dreams” took place in a corn field outside Dyersville, not far from Dubuque. “The Music Man” was based on Meredith Wilson’s childhood in Mason City – renamed River City in the Broadway musical and movie. Or, you may remember “State Fair,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical set at the state fair grounds in Des Moines. And, of course, popular culture can never forget “the day the music died” in a frozen corn field near Clear Lake, Iowa, where a charter plane carrying Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper crashed in February 1959.

Cornfields are a big part of Iowa culture.

It turns out Sue wanted to see a circus – a political circus. She knew that the 2019 Iowa State Fair would be a major stop for 2020 presidential candidates. Both the Democratic and Republican parties plan to hold caucuses next February, just before the New Hampshire primary. In this election cycle there are more than 20 Democrats seeking to challenge the incumbent president. Clearly, the entertainment value of such a spectacle beats going to a rodeo or even a goat roping. So, of course, we went to Iowa to immerse ourselves in the wonder of it all – and to experience exotic fried food and delicacies that can be eaten off a stick.

We arrived in Des Moines, the state capital and site of the state fair, late on August 7 with barely enough time to rest before setting out the next morning to catch Steve Bullock and Joe Biden who were scheduled to speak at the Des Moines Register’s political soapbox. In the next four days we saw 21 presidential candidates (20 Democrats and one Repub- lican). The “soapbox” was actually a small platform (about 6’ x 10’) surrounded by hay bales, located on the Grand Concourse – a wide street through the central part of the fairgrounds.

Each candidate was given 20 minutes to deliver a “stump speech.” It gave candidates the opportunity to explain why they are running for president and what they would like to accomplish if elected. Most speakers completed their remarks in 10 to 15 minutes and then took questions from the audience.

Seating was limited to about 40 folding chairs in an area no larger than a living room; the Grand Concourse provided standing room for several hundred listeners depending on the appeal of the speaker. For several hours each day we took turns holding our seats between speakers while one of us went out for food and water – lots of water.

We learned there is a term for what we were doing: political tourism. We were not the only ones with the bright idea of going to the Iowa State Fair to see and hear all the candidates. Our first day there we met a retired couple from Sonoma County, California, who had flown in the night before, just as we did. They were staying a week, just like us. The next day, we met a father-daughter pair from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and their friend from Spain, who traveled to the fair. We also met a couple from Florida, and a mother-son team from Atlanta, Georgia. In fact, most of the people in the seating area were not Iowa residents – and cannot participate in the February caucus.

The major reason the 2019 Iowa State Fair was hosting so many presidential candidates is that Iowa will start the process of selecting delegates to the 2020 national conventions with caucuses for both the Republican and Democratic parties on February 3.

A caucus is different from a primary election in that registered voters in each party hold precinct-level meetings in private homes or meeting places to select delegates to county and state conventions. Such self-selected groups may not be representative of all voters but caucus results are often viewed as strong indicators of how candidates may perform in later contests.

The Iowa caucus became important in 1976 when Jimmy Carter placed first and then won the New Hampshire primary, going on to defeat Morris Udall, Jerry Brown, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, and George Wallace for the Democratic nomination. Since then, Iowa and New Hampshire have been guaranteed their positions as first in the nation to help determine each party’s eventual nominee.

Although the state fair was the main venue for candidates, during the week we were in Iowa they were also holding dozens of smaller events around the state.

Before each speaker came onstage the ground rules for crowd behavior were reviewed: everyone was expected to be “Iowa nice” – cheering is OK, jeering is not nice, signs are not to be raised (for the benefit of cameras) because they block the view of people behind. With few exceptions (including a fellow who had imbibed too much at the Steer & Stein tent) everyone did as asked.

Several hundred members of the national and international press attended the Iowa State Fair to report on candidates at the political soapbox and to follow them around the fairgrounds as they visited various exhibits and sampled the food. When they weren’t interviewing candidates, reporters were interviewing anyone who was standing still. Because we spent most of our time in the seating area by the soapbox, we were interviewed by Finnish national TV, ABC, CNN, The Daily Iowan and the French newspaper, Le Monde.

When we were not guarding our seats, we were able to enjoy the fair’s attractions and eat things that are not part of a balanced diet. We made the obligatory visit to the agriculture center where a full-size dairy cow is sculptured in butter and on display in a large refrigerator with a picture window for viewing. A continual line of people waited patiently, almost reverently, to glimpse or take a photo of the butter cow. In one of the exhibition centers, we saw 4-H members running alongside miniature horses to guide them on a tether over short rails. We saw horses being judged both with and without riders.

Half of the fun of a fair is, of course, the food. We saw many people – including small children – walking around gnawing on full turkey legs. Corn dogs, of course, were everywhere as were funnel cakes, fritters and fried pickles. The unexpected, pleasant surprise was fried Oreos. A single Oreo is dipped in a donut-like batter and deep fried. The result is like a large donut “hole” with a chocolate cake center. You buy them by the half-dozen, and they are delicious.

But, one quickly becomes aware that the Iowa Pork Producers has an outsized affect on food fare at the state fair. We ate pork chops on a stick, bacon-wrapped ribs on a stick, and more than one pork tenderloin sandwich, an Iowa classic which is something to behold. First, you take a half-pound of pork tenderloin, butterfly it, and pound it out to the shape of a large shoe sole. Then, you dredge it in flour, dip it in egg/milk, coat it with bread crumbs combined with Panko, and pan fry it to a golden brown. It is served on a hamburger bun – which looks comical – and provides a full day’s ration of salt and grease. Boy, is it good!

The question remains: What did the candidates actually talk about? Although the candidates told different stories about themselves and emphasized different things when describing what they believe should be done, there were basic themes. For instance:

Access to basic health care should be regarded as a right of citizenship; universal health care should be the goal but there are many possible ways to achieve it. Climate change must be addressed immediately at a national level and in cooperation with other countries. Comprehensive immigration reform is needed which addresses problems with legal and illegal immigration. Improved access to public education, beginning with Pre-K. State and local elections must be free from foreign interference; and background checks should be required for all gun purchases.

And now, some food for thought:

Since Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, there have been 30 presidents: 20 Republican and 10 Democrats. Of those, 10 were state governors before becoming president. Three Democratic candidates (i.e., Bullock, Hickenlooper, and Inslee) and one Republican (Weld) at the Iowa State Fair were/are governors – each believing he is the best qualified to be president.

Nine presidents since 1860 were vice president before becoming president. Two Democrats and seven Republicans became president after serving as vice president, thus providing the second best chance for becoming president. Joe Biden is hoping to extend the line.

Since 1860, the third most likely position held before becoming president was U. S. Senator; four presidents were Senators just before being elected. For 2020, seven Senators are seeking the Democratic nomination (i.e., Bennet, Booker, Gillibrand, Harris, Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren) – all of them ready for a new day job.

While only one president has been elected from the House of Representatives, three Democratic candidates are from the House (i.e., Delaney, Gabbard, and Ryan). No city mayor has ever been elected president which does not bode well for Buttigieg or de Blasio. Eisenhower was the last military general to become president – which rains on Sestak’s parade.

Incumbency is a strong indicator for who gets elected president. Of the 25 incumbents who ran since 1860, 16 were re-elected – which may be encouraging for the current president.

more recommended stories