DES MOINES, Iowa — Sampling the pork chop on a stick. Snapping a selfie with the butter cow. Taking questions about foreign policy from hecklers.
For those who would be president, a visit to the Iowa State Fair may be the purest distillation of the campaign experience in the state that starts the voting in the race for the White House.
The 11-day event starts Thursday, and most of the 2016 hopefuls will pass through, pausing to chomp on deep-fried snack foods, visit with locals out for a day of fun and spend some time on the political soapbox to talk with voters.
If all goes well, the fair provides an opportunity for a candidate to have candid interaction with voters and shows off a side of him or her not often seen on TV. People fondly remember Barack Obama’s ride on the bumper cars with his family in 2007.
But in the increasingly stage-managed world of presidential politics, awkward moments and ill-timed soundbites can flow from this unscripted setting.
“It’s an important thing for candidates to do,” said Tom Henderson, chairman of the Democratic Party in Iowa’s Polk County. “The pitfall is that in prior years, the real news story has been hecklers, which leads to quotes the candidates have to answer for.”
Consider the case of Mitt Romney, who during the last campaign said atop The Des Moines Register’s soapbox: “Corporations are people, my friend.” The comment dogged Romney, the former private equity executive, for the rest of his campaign.
This year, more than a dozen candidates for president are scheduled take their turn on the soapbox, among them Republicans Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio. Democrats Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley will, too.
Will Hillary Rodham Clinton? She’s coming to the fair, but hasn’t yet said if she’ll take a turn on the box.
Iowa is already a place where even the most cautious-minded and carefully managed political candidate can have unexpected, intimate and sometimes just plain weird moments with the public. At campaign stops in recent months, Bush held hands and prayed with a flower-laden man in a top hat, Walker embraced a sobbing homeless military veteran and Clinton graciously accepted garlic pills from a supporter concerned for her health.
The fair only amplifies the Iowa experience. Will Rogers, GOP chairman of Polk County, called it “the Iowa culture crammed into 10 days.”
For Republicans, the cancellation of the traditional Iowa Straw Poll makes the fair an even more important destination. The poll had been a mainstay of the GOP presidential primary since 1979, raising money for the state party and culling the field of candidates. It was a weak predictor of candidate success in Iowa’s caucuses, however, and some major candidates skipped it. The Iowa GOP decided in June to drop the poll.
“Not all candidates are going to appear natural and comfortable at a state fair. There is an element here of being able to interact with an average person on a hot August day,” said Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa.
A cheerleader for all things Iowa, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad waxed poetic about the benefit of a good fair appearance, remembering his trip to the event last year with Joni Ernst, then a state senator, now a U.S. senator.
“I can tell you, she really connected,” Branstad said. “People were coming up to Joni and hugging her. I think that was a precursor to what happened in the election.”