The view of the 2016 presidential race at the Iowa State Fair is less than inspiring.
Photo taken by Flickr user Phil Roeder.
By Dan Sinykin
It’s 11:30 Tuesday morning, raining out of a low sky. No one’s riding the Crazy Mouse or strapping into the Turbo Jump or climbing the Climb the Rock. No one’s buying Barksdale’s Famous Hot Oven-Baked Cup of Cookies or Sydnie’s Smoothie on a Stick. An empty grass field is turning to mud. Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” surges from somewhere. A line of tractors, red and green, glistens wetly. You’d be forgiven for failing to recognize that this—as the daily news reports might lead you to believe—is the heart, for the week, of American political life.
Candidates for president have been passing through the Iowa State Fair since Thursday. Near-mandatory stops include ogling a life-size cow made of butter, donning an apron and flipping pork burgers at the Iowa Pork Producers Pork Tent, and speaking at the Des Moines Register‘s Soapbox, a makeshift podium set before a scattering of folding chairs. They do all this surrounded by a scrum of anywhere between fifteen and fifty reporters, videographers, techs with boom mikes, staffers, volunteers, and fairgoers who rush into the midst of it all for selfies. The scrum tends to move haltingly, a jostling of tiny steps. Every moment—whether it’s Ben Carson getting his blood pressure taken by Des Moines University medical students or Hillary Clinton meeting a heifer named Maggie—is choreographed to the best of the Communications Teams’ abilities.
This is my third day trailing GOP candidates from the Soapbox to the exit gates. I have seen Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Carly Fiorina, and, this morning, Marco Rubio. Donald Trump made a cameo appearance on Saturday, arriving in his personal helicopter. John Kasich speaks later this afternoon. Ted Cruz, the last of the heavy hitters, comes Friday.
Where does this rhetoric begin: the people, the press, the candidates’ Comms Teams?
A few minutes ago, Rubio ducked with his two daughters into a black SUV and left the Fair. He had by far the fastest and most well-orchestrated scrum—not counting Clinton, who fairgoers repeatedly tell me was guarded and made inaccessible by a phalanx of advisors and Secret Service—which reflects his polish as a candidate. He is polished in a way we have been conditioned to like, a very likeable politician who is being neglected because of the rise of what the press has come to call the antipolitician: Trump, Carson, Fiorina. Fairgoers who like these three emphasize their status as outsiders. Carson enthusiast Steve Sloan told me, “he’s just so different from what we’re used to seeing from politicians.” His wife Francis added, “It’s just refreshing.” Where does this rhetoric begin: the people, the press, the candidates’ Comms Teams? Who started the rumor that the most important thing about these three is that they are not politicians?
Seeking shelter, I wander into the Elwell Family Food Center. The EFFC hosts contests for the tastiest food in various unlikely categories. Today’s Food Judging Schedule for Room 4, for example, includes Pajama Party Goodies, Gourmet Mini Parfaits, My Most Creative C&H Sugar Cookie, and Kraft’s Kreation with Velveeta. Though it’s ten minutes past the scheduled start, the C&H Sugar Cookie judges patiently crochet and wait for the Gourmet Mini Parfait judges—who do not seem in any hurry, consulting one another with considerable discrimination and pleasure—to finish. Around the corner, two archetypal Midwestern church ladies distribute free samples of SPAM Lite, impaled on a pretzel and unexpectedly warm. I overhear one big man, whose cheeks are the color of ground beef, say to another big man, “SPAM and eggs, I’m crazy about it.”
For a happy moment I’m reminded that most people actually care more about their next meal than whether Rubio has read Trump’s immigration plan.
The latter, who appears by his SPAM tee shirt to be a SPAM representative, says, “It’s hard to get people out here excited about it.”
To which the first guy responds, “That’s because they don’t try it.”
All of which reminds me for a happy moment that most people actually care more about their next meal than whether Rubio has read Trump’s immigration plan. Back at the Soapbox, details like this gain outsize importance in the building of the day’s narrative. For the next few days, the big news will be Trump’s plan. It’s the first such plan and the first substantive policy paper put out by a GOP candidate during the early months of the campaign, what one seasoned and cynical AP reporter from Des Moines who’s following Jeb Bush described to me as “the silly season.”
But what is a substantive policy paper from Donald Trump? What are policy proposals from any of the candidates but sketches toward a character? When Ben Carson promises to deliver term limits to Congress, are we supposed to believe him? When Carly Fiorina says on her first day of office she would call the “Supreme Leader of Iran” and tell him that the US would be acting unilaterally to enact crushing sanctions, are we supposed to believe her? These are acts of self-fashioning, an old American tradition. What seems new is the banality of what passes as substantive policy. Something, then, about the urgency with which the press tries to get each of the candidates to utter specificities (could you tell us, Senator, specifically…?) strikes me as deeply melancholy.
They, the press, all seem smart and hard-working and eager to communicate to the public the latest turns on the Trail, but the thing that’s hardest to communicate beyond the limits of deadlines and journalistic genre constraints is what brings the fairgoers here to the Soapbox and the edge of the scrums, which is the aura that emanates from the candidates’ (perspiring) flesh. Eighteen-year-old Cody Woodruff, the Iowa State Director for something called the Presidential Youth Council Campaign, calls this “genuineness.” This morning he told me, “I can watch debates, I can read the news, but I really like being one-on-one, you get a different feel, you can tell who’s genuine.”
According to Woodruff, “Governor Bush has probably been the most surprising in genuineness.” He also likes Ben Carson. After what many saw as a lame performance in the first debate, Carson rose in the polls. He is in second in Iowa, after Trump. Folks at the Soapbox like his calm demeanor, his politeness, and his (at least alleged) deference to reason. This is a man, let us not forget, who said Obamacare is the worst thing that has happened to America since slavery and who maintains that abortion is the leading cause of death among blacks in America. For his speech he wore a powder blue shirt and off-white slacks it looked like his aides forgot to iron. In the flesh, he does, indeed, radiate gentle calm. He is, as both his campaign slogan and his Soapbox fans testify, a healer. “We need a black guy as president,” one young woman told me, because Obama “just set racial [relations] back thirty years.” When I asked her to explain, she said, “We have riots in Baltimore, riots across the country. I mean, I’m not a racist whatsoever, but it’s a fact that [Obama’s] letting them get away with what they want.”
The rain keeps coming down. I eat a pork chop-on-a-stick and head to see Kasich.
People of color have been scarce at the Fair, so I was curious when Scott Walker drew a racially diverse crowd. A few minutes into his speech, protestors began yelling, “You’re a bully!” and “You failed your state!” His supporters, in turn, turned up the amperage of their cheers. As for Walker, he seemed delighted, like any bully, by his power to provoke both outrage and mouth-foaming support. His eyes gleamed. He salivated. “You think you want someone tough,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who talk tough, I’m the only one who stood up to a hundred thousand protestors.” He grew more impassioned as the crowd grew wilder, displaying a terrifying charisma.
Many of the protestors had travelled from Milwaukee on a bus organized by the local Service Employees International Union, which represents nurses, janitors, home care workers. One of those who came on the bus was Stephanie Sanders. She carried a Hello Kitty purse and had on her arm a tattoo in cursive with the three words, one above another, Pretty Brown Round. She said she came “to let everybody know that Walker’s a big liar. He cut so much education. It’s bad, teachers lost jobs…our crime rate, we’re at ninety-seven homicides already [this year] in Milwaukee.”
The rain keeps coming down. I eat a pork chop-on-a-stick and head to see Kasich. The Des Moines Register has moved the Soapbox inside where Kasich gives a rambling speech that feels self-sabotaging. He talks about the budget he proposed when he was in Congress that lost 405-30. He touts that, in his run for Governor of Ohio, he managed to get 26 percent of the African-American vote (which means he lost the other 74 percent). He dismisses the value of “freedom” and “happiness.” He calls himself “the most flawed person in this room.”
Afterward, attending the scrum, I tell the reporter from the Wall Street Journal that it sounded to me like Kasich was on drugs. She tells me that she thought Kasich made more sense than a lot of the candidates. Fairgoers agree with her. I talk to a University of Northern Iowa graduate student in history who tells me, “He’s really cemented the caucus for me.” His eyes are shining, fervid, scary.
I have seen complexity and chaos at the Soapbox transformed into narrative and light. Politicians have made their pitches. Fairgoers, some of them, while in the shade of charismatic auras, have become fanatics. The press has scribbled it all down and captured it on video and uploaded it in digestible clips and given us stories. Comms Teams have read those stories for the next revision. A huge amount of energy has swirled around a void in the middle of Iowa, a small, black, 10′ x 10′ box. Shortly after I peel off from Kasich’s scrum, the clouds break. The sun comes out. Loudly, from somewhere, Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” begins to play.
Dan Sinykin is an assistant professor of English at Grinnell College.