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Why do presidential candidates flock to the Iowa State Fair?

For candidates, it offers a chance to shake hands with voters who will be the first to cast ballots in the primaries.
Posted at 3:03 PM, Aug 10, 2023

The Iowa State Fair has been a staple of Midwest summers for nearly 170 years. And for nearly 60 years, it's also been a staple of presidential campaigns.

"First of all, if you want to catch a lot of Iowans at once, you want to do that at the Iowa State Fair," said Jeremy Parsons, the CEO of theIowa State Fair.

Total attendance throughout the 11-day fair can be over a million. For candidates, it offers a chance to shake hands with voters who will be the first to cast ballots in the primaries. 

"The Iowa caucuses in Iowa politics are kind of based on that one-on-one interaction. And you still get that at the Iowa State Fair," said Parsons.

Candidates can't hold their own campaign events at the fair, but they do get involved.

"A long-standing tradition at the Iowa State Fair is the Des Moines Register Soapbox, which literally is, you know, some hay bales in front of one of our buildings that candidates can sign up for times to participate ... It's kind of a rite of passage that you sign up for a shift to flip pork chops and grill pork chops at the Iowa pork tent … And of course, you stop and see the butter cow in the [agriculture] building," explained Parsons.

With so many politicians in one place, it can be hard to break out from the pack. Sometimes, extravagance makes headlines — like when then-candidate Donald Trump offered helicopter rides to kids in 2015.

Other times, it's a misstep at the fair that can hurt a campaign, like in 2011 when Mitt Romney said, "corporations are people, my friend."

But as long as the Iowa caucuses stay near the top of the primary calendar, presidential candidates are likely to keep stopping by.

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