Photos by Seth Herald
DES MOINES, Iowa — “GOLF CART! GOLF CART! GOLF CART! GOLF CART!” one of Kamala Harris’ aides yelled. “FLOWER POT!” another unidentified member of the newly formed congregation bellowed out soon after.
The amorphous and indomitable blob that had formed around the California senator-turned-presidential candidate that Saturday was quickly moving deeper into the Iowa State Fair without much concern for the carts, pots and people standing in its way. Phones fell to the ground as owners rushed to save them. Mothers shoved strollers out of the way.
None of it mattered in the slightest. The collection of scribbling press members, scrambling campaign associates and a few political gawkers wanted to watch Harris eat pork, and nothing and no one was going to stop them now.
Since Iowa established itself as the first stop in any presidential campaign half a century ago, a visit to the state’s fair has come to be considered an obligation of the highest order for any candidate. “Skipping it entirely would be interpreted as a huge insult to those first primary voters,” The New York Times’ Lisa Lerer recently explained.
Minutes before the chaos, Harris had wrapped up the two critical pit stops of most visits to the fair, delivering a stirring rendition of her stump speech as part of the Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox, followed by the obligatory Register-sponsored press gaggle under a nearby tent. Now, she was on the march toward the Iowa Pork Tent ― ground zero for iconic political moments such as Mitt Romney picking a pork chop off the gravel and placing it back on the impressively sized grill 12 years ago.
Above: Presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) eats a pork chop at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 10, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.
On its face, the exact purpose of such a stop would seem to be to hobnob with a few potential caucusgoers, eat a pork chop on a stick (or a corn dog or fried whatever) and prove your woman-of-the-people bona fides.
But in 2019, the political value of the tradition is arguable at best. The truth is, aside from the relief that comes with avoiding the headline “[Your Candidate Here] Skips The Iowa State Fair,” it’s hard to see who, exactly, enjoys this bastardized version of so-called “retail politics.”
For starters, the vast majority of Democratic and Republican caucusgoers don’t care if a politician can eat a pork tenderloin sandwich, at least according to the Des Moines Register, which polled the question in 2015.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” said Wayne, a 77-year-old Democratic retired schoolteacher who is considering voting for Harris, seemingly confirming that finding to HuffPost.
The Register’s poll found, however, that 96% of Democrats and 93% of Republicans do care that candidates answer questions. But almost anyone who followed Harris or any of the primary front-runners last weekend could tell you the state fair isn’t exactly the easiest environment for a back-and-forth.
The main problem was the throng of people surrounding Harris who hoped to catch her every movement and word, scurrying backward and occasionally tripping over objects and one another with cameras and boom mics in hand ― a collection of people justifiably occupied with professional obligations that nonetheless together created an environment that bordered on the chaotic.
The “paparazzi,” as fairgoers called them, yelled out so many questions that only a few prospective voters stood a chance of getting a word in edgewise. Some were right-wing agitators, who throughout the weekend peppered the Democratic candidates with bad-faith questions in hopes one of them might say or do something stupid. (Joe Biden fell victim when he said there were “at least three” genders ― which is prime Turning Point USA content, apparently).
Democrat Jaci Smith, 46, said it wasn’t always such a multilayered media scene.
“When I was younger, a few years ago, some of the candidates would actually milk the cow and see the sheep and see the pigs,” said Smith. “Now it’s like, they go do a photo-op with the pork on a stick or a corn dog and then they’re gone.”
Before they bounce, the candidates elicit a long string of Iowa not-so-niceties from the surrounding fairgoers. A smattering of those lobbed at the Harris-following blob: “Ridiculous!” “Jesus!” “Don’t step on my toes!” “Whoa! Whoa!” “We picked the wrong bench!” and “How fucking annoying is this?”
From the inside, the reactions seemed justifiable. Rarely does the pursuit of pork engender such stress, and it soon became clear this was a moment to survive, not enjoy. “We’re almost at the pork tent, where there will hopefully be some relief,” one of the blob’s members said as the sun beat down on the crowd.
When I was younger, some of the candidates would actually milk the cow and see the sheep and see the pigs. Now it’s like, they go do a photo-op with the pork on a stick or a corn dog and then they’re gone. Democrat Jaci Smith, 46
To make clear: None of the commotion was the slightest fault of Harris — who made the best of the commotion and sweltering heat — or of her hard-working aides, who temporarily doubled as security guards as they walled off the right-wing agitators (who were, subjectively speaking, quite annoying).
Nor was the scene particular to the California senator, outside of her status as one of the Democratic front-runners and any amount of extra attention that befell her as a result. This is just how the dance works. Throughout the weekend, as presidential candidates made their way to food stands, butter cows and amusement park rides, there was an unmistakable sense among fairgoers of all political persuasions that the blob was more nuisance than anything else.
The previous day, a representative of a souvenir shop had screamed at author Marianne Williamson’s blob to get out as quickly as possible. “Would you just get out faster, please?” she asked. As Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s blob made its way through the fair, people shouted out things like “Typical Democrat!” “Shit!” and “Goddamn politicians!” (“Can you guys be careful, please?” Gabbard eventually had to ask us all.)
When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) attempted somewhat unsuccessfully to move her own mass of people, a fan felt obligated to shout: “Let her breathe, people!” “This is crazy,” someone said as Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) et al. moved past. “If that’s not disrespect, I don’t know what is,” an attendee opined as New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s own flock moved through. Then there were the things this reporter overheard while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) attempted to guide the enormous mob around him: “There’s a dog!” “There’s a table!” “Tree! Tree!” and “They’re going to trample us!” and, maybe most accurately, “What a mess.”
Who, exactly, benefits from a candidate eating a corn dog? And who enjoys it? Certainly not most potential caucusgoers. “You can’t hear anything! Doesn’t make any sense,” a mother said as Harris stopped at the Iowa Democratic Party’s booth. As the political press submerged Booker at the same place, Dave, 71, also expressed his frustration with the setup. “There’s so darn many cameras, the regular people can’t see!” he said.
Many of the candidates can and do make themselves available to Iowans at small events throughout the seemingly interminable campaign season, a political necessity in a state where many demand it. But the Iowa State Fair would seem not to be one such place.
“Oh, this is crazy for the candidates,” said undecided Democrat Tim McEntee, 54. “The candidates come back numerous times between now and the caucus. So you have plenty of time to get the one-on-ones with them.”
“It’s more of a show than anything,” said Republican Jerry Davis, 87. “To swoop in here, as many of the Democrat candidates are this year, just going around after they make their stump speech at the Soapbox there … That’s just showbiz. That’s just advertisement. That’s basically what it is.”
For the vast majority of the million or so people who make their way through the ticket gates each August, the century-and-a-half-old fair is an apolitical happening, more about some combination of pigs, cows and corn than political grandstanding.
There’s so darn many cameras, the regular people can’t see! Dave, 71
“Ninety-nine percent of these people are not paying attention to any of that going on right there. Because they don’t care,” a 50-year-old plumber named Terry said as Gillibrand walked by him. “It’s silly.”
Understandable, considering the other options at the fair. Modern politics might be a form of entertainment for some, but it’s exponentially less entertaining when it’s 80-plus degrees out and there are fried Oreos, Twinkies and candy bars to be consumed across the street. Talk to the attendees about what to do at the fair, and they’ll probably tell you to take in a dance show, take a look at some classic cars or take a gander at the livestock or super bull (2,710 lbs. this year — a ways off the record 3,404 lbs. in 2009).
The Iowa State Fair’s own website mostly avoids the fair’s well-established political associations, but proudly lists 69 different types of food one can find on sticks inside the fairgrounds, including culinary innovations including the Breakfast Sausage In A Waffle On A Stick, Caramel Dipped Pecan Pie On A Stick, Crazy Tater On A Stick W/ Cheese And Chili and even, somehow, a Smoothie On A Stick.
By comparison, the prospect of temporarily joining a slow-moving media scrum in the off-chance of getting a selfie with a would-be-could-be president ranks low on the fun scale. Leaning against the Rock ‘n’ Roll Funhouse on Sunday, a man named Steve in a USMC cap and matching T-shirt recoiled at the suggestion that the political spectacle played some role in his decision to come back to the fair year after year.
“I try to come here to have fun,” he replied.
Presumably, in their hearts, the candidates know this, and so do their campaigns. Which begs the question: Why annoy so many politically important people by touring the fair at all? One potential answer might be that a misfire could lead to unwanted copy, as was the case for Sanders in the pages of The New York Times this week.
“Bernie Sanders examined the butter cow. He power-walked by the Ferris wheel. He gobbled a corn dog,” The Times’ Sydney Ember wrote. “He spoke to almost no one.”
Shock, horror! Except few of the candidates could, outside of your Bill de Blasios. So instead, the candidates’ tours become something more of a slow-moving movie set, optics on steroids, a series of bite-sized photo-ops meant to prove Candidate “X” has kissed Iowa’s 445-acre ring. Those in attendance might not be able to technically see Sanders chow down on a corn dog, but at least the candidates have photo evidence that they did chew and swallow ― that there is no reason to be insulted here, actually.
Perhaps the group that most wants to see the foods consumed and rides ridden is the press itself, for which the allure of a corn dog-eating politician is undeniable. Stump speeches are more or less the same, day in and day out, but interviewing Cory Booker atop a Ferris wheel? Now, that’s different. So the charade drags on, the result of a series of historical coincidences that make a Midwestern fair an inescapable stop on the road to the White House.
Perhaps the group that most wants to see the foods consumed and rides ridden is the press itself, for which the allure of a corn dog-eating politician is undeniable.
At least one representative has indicated he will no longer go along with the charade, no matter the consequences. After skipping his scheduled visit to the fair to deal with the aftermath of a mass shooting in his home city of El Paso, Texas, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke said Thursday that he would no longer abide by the rules of elections past.
“Someone asked if I was going to be heading back to Iowa, go to the Iowa State Fair, corn dogs and Ferris wheels. And I said, no, I can’t go back for that. But I also cannot go back to that,” O’Rourke said. “Those places where Donald Trump has been terrorizing and terrifying and demeaning our fellow Americans, that’s where you will find me in this campaign.”
Harris, for her part, eventually made it to the pork tent, where she donned an apron and flipped some pork in front of a mass of cameras and onlookers. “I think I could flip some Republicans, too,” she joked as the Pork Queen stood by her side. Surrounded in every direction and sweating through the summer heat, she couldn’t have been comfortable. No one was. But she smiled and laughed through it anyway.
When she finished, a few members of the press jumped a fence, landing in some of the pork tent’s flower beds, much to the consternation of some of the business’s employees, who told them to please walk around like everyone else.
“So disrespectful,” one of them said as the press scurried off.