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DES MOINES, Iowa – With its corn dogs, famous butter cow and wholesome, farm-bred competition, the Iowa State Fair is a heaping portion of Americana – star-spangled, deep-fried and gigantic. It’s also where the presidential horse race begins.
“Politicians love to go out to the State Fair. It’s very populist,” said Kathie Obradovich, a Des Moines Register political columnist. “You can show how brave you are by eating food on a stick.”
Iowans are the first in the nation to cast primary votes in the presidential election, a tradition since 1972. Because of this, the state of just 3 million people punches far above its weight politically.
“People will always ask, ‘Well, why is Iowa so important?’” said Obradovich. “Iowa is not first in the nation because it is important. It’s important because it is first in the nation.”
Caucuses as kingmaker
Iowa gives candidates a big stage and a big microphone, explained Bob Vander Plaats, who runs the Family Leader, a conservative Christian organization in Iowa, and whose endorsement is coveted by Republican candidates.
“Whether you’re going to win Iowa or not, that’s kind of irrelevant,” Vander Plaats said. “You need to be here to get your message out so you can play in the other states as well.”
Iowa was famously Jimmy Carter’s springboard to the presidency. The virtually unknown Georgia governor devoted all his resources to that first caucus, even coming to live in Iowa for two years, and his victory shot him into frontrunner status. Carter went on to become president, even though he didn’t take Iowa in the general election.
So, if you’re going to throw your hat in the ring for president, you have to come to Iowa and you definitely have to come to the Iowa State Fair.
The presidential election is more than two years away, but that hasn’t stopped at least a dozen presidential hopefuls from making the trek to Iowa. Just days before he was indicted last week on two felony counts for alleged abuse of power, Texas Gov. Rick Perry even made an appearance at the fair.
Iowans don’t always pick the eventual nominee. Iowa Republicans, largely influenced by Vander Plaat’s endorsement, picked Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012. But looking at the historical record, candidates who ignore Iowa do so at their own peril.
“If you look back at history, there have been candidates that tried to skip Iowa,” Obradovich said. “Rudy Giuliani … he thought he might be too moderate for the Republicans here, he’ll just start in Florida. Well, by the time the race got to Florida, it was too late. It was over.”
This year, would-be Republican contenders have dominated the fair. On the Democratic side, any potential contenders are sitting out until Hillary Clinton declares her intentions. She’s announced she’ll attend another classic Iowa event, the annual Harkin steak fry, hosted in September by Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal insisted he wouldn’t make a decision about whether to run until after November, but he still made an appearance at the Iowa State Fair this year.
“I think the folks here take that responsibility [of being first] very seriously,” Jindal told America Tonight. “I’m a big believer we need to trust the American people. We don’t need to trust the folks in D.C. to make these decisions. I think it’s a great tradition where everyday families, everyday workers … get to question folks that want to lead the country.”
Longtime Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley has been coming to the fair his whole life. He said it used to be more centered on agriculture.
“The animal shows is still a big part of it,” Grassley said. “… But it’s also what Iowa’s about: entrepreneurship, small business, small farms, big farms.”
The making of a candidate
Iowa is an important training ground for presidential candidates, explained AJ Schnack, who directed the documentary “Caucus,” which chronicled the Republican nominating contest in Iowa in 2012.
“When they arrive in Iowa, they’re maybe not very good at running for president,” he said. “They may be good at running for governor or running for Congress, but running for president is a very different thing.”
In 2012, Perry played the Texas card, with boots, buckle, hay bales and all. The 2014 version of the recently indicted governor is more urban hipster – square glasses, loafers and polo shirts – an image he took for a test drive in Iowa.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was another potential presidential candidate trying out campaign themes at the fair this year.
“All across this country, people are waking up,” Cruz declared earlier this month during his turn on the fair’s “soap box.” “And they’re waking up to bring America back to the principles we have been founded on. There is a better way than the path we are on.”
The fair is the home of retail politics, where Iowans can meet the candidates and judge the artfulness of their eye contact and quality of their handshakes.
“If you’re interested in politics, it’s hard to imagine a better place than Iowa,” Schnack said. “… You will get to meet them all. And it’s early enough in the campaign even if they have security, even if they have some handlers, it’s early enough in the campaign that you’re not being held behind a velvet rope.”
Peter McRoberts is one such voter, having met just about everyone in the last two election cycles.
“I’ve met them all,” he said. “I take my role as a voter seriously.”
Recent history confirms how critical the Iowa caucus is. In 2008, Barack Obama, a little-known junior senator from Illinois, also came to the State Fair. His victory in the Iowa Democratic caucuses was a brutal blow to Hillary Clinton, who had seemed the inevitable nominee.
“On the day of the Iowa caucus, my faith in the American people was vindicated,” Obama said in Iowa days before he became the nation’s 44th president. “What you started here in Iowa has swept across the nation. So, the people of Iowa, I will always be grateful to you.”