DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – The Iowa State Fair is an extravaganza that attracts upwards of 1 million visitors over 11 days for midway thrills, livestock shows, music and every kind of food on a stick imaginable.
This year’s fair will also bring in Democratic presidential candidates eager to plunge into the sweaty crowds and be seen by national media gnawing on corn dogs and pork chops with regular Iowans.
One big draw for political candidates in election years is the Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox, a stage on the State Fair Grand Concourse where candidates are given a microphone and 20 minutes to make their pitch to folks strolling down the main thoroughfare across from the stately grandstand. From there, candidates typically make a swing through the fairgrounds, with supporters and jostling camera crews in tow.
Whether they like it or not, candidates find the Iowa State Fair, which kicks off Thursday, is an irresistible campaign stop in the Hawkeye State, home to the first-in-the nation caucuses that winnow the field. After spending months crisscrossing the state for Rotary Club lunches and living room meet-and-greets, the state fair offers the opportunity to campaign at the largest single gathering of voters in Iowa.
Presidents, former presidents and presidential hopefuls from Dwight Eisenhower and Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have made obligatory stops at the fair. It was at the 2011 State Fair where Mitt Romney uttered the memorable “corporations are people, my friend,” line in a Soapbox speech. In 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump arrived by helicopter on a parking lot near the fairgrounds.
Most major Democratic candidates are scheduled to make appearances this week and next on the Register’s Soapbox , including former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, California Senator Kamala Harris, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.
Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke was initially scheduled to appear as well but decided to stay in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, in the wake of a mass shooting there.
The Register has invited all candidates – Democrat and Republican – and updates the speaker schedule online.
Candidates are already barnstorming the state ahead of the fair.
U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota was in Iowa on Wednesday to announce her plan to help family farmers and revitalize rural communities. Klobuchar will then set off on a 20-county tour.
She said in a statement Wednesday that her “plan for America’s heartland” will “strengthen our agricultural and rural communities, bridge the rural-urban divide, and make sure that kids who group up in rural America can stay in rural America.”
Among other things, Klobuchar’s plan would expand on commodity supports and crop insurance, promote exports and invest in rural infrastructure, transportation and high-speed broadband service, and preserve rural hospitals and health care.
Warren, who is making a four-day Iowa swing, released her own plan to invest in rural America and rebuild the farm economy, including a public option for broadband, investing in rural health care and housing, and dealing with the opioid crisis.
Other Democratic also candidates offered rural revitalization plans Wednesday, including U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who announced a $50 billion rural America fund, and former Maryland Congressman John Delaney, who pitched a “Heartland Fair Deal” for rural America.
Although politics is an important ingredient for the Iowa State Fair, it is only part of the storied event.
The fair has been an important institution for more than a century and was the subject of the 1932 novel, “State Fair,” which inspired three movies and a Broadway musical.
In recent decades, Iowa has spent more than $150 million over the past 25 years to restore historic buildings on the fairgrounds and build new ones with funds allocated by the state and money raised by the State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation.
Fair promoters over the decades came up with novel entertainment ideas to lure visitors, including three staged train wrecks with steam locomotives colliding in front of the grandstand between 1896 and 1932. Livestock exhibitors bring everything from chickens and pigeons to cattle, hogs and sheep in the hope of taking home one of more than 40,000 ribbons handed out each year.
Fairgoers come to see the butter cow, grandstand shows, hog-calling contests and the biggest boar – usually weighing in at more than 1,200 pounds. Many come mostly for the fried food sold at hundreds of concession stands scattered around the 400-acre fairgrounds.