(DES MOINES, Iowa) — Grilling pork chops, chowing down on corn dogs, visiting the famous “Butter Cow” dairy sculpture: these festivities and more await the 2024 presidential candidates starting Thursday at the Iowa State Fair.
The fair, an annual celebration of Iowa’s agriculture industry, is a rite of passage for presidential candidates looking to mingle with early-state voters. And with so many unscripted interactions, and a selection of unique foods, it also presents landmines for White House hopefuls.
In 2011, Democrats seized on then-candidate Mitt Romney’s offhand response to a heckler that “corporations are people, my friend” to paint him as out-of-touch for the rest of the campaign.
Former candidates Michelle Bachmann, Bernie Sanders and Rick Perry have all struggled to eat the Iowa State Fair’s famous corn dogs with dignity in front of the cameras.
While running for president in 2004, John Kerry made the faux pas of ordering a strawberry smoothie at the fair, rather than the typical beer.
The moment followed Kerry for years: “In my defense, it was delicious — but you’re right Matt, that smoothie clearly killed me in the Iowa caucuses,” he tweeted in 2019.
This year, as always, the political dramas of the race are sure to follow the candidates through the festivities.
At the center of those dramas is former President Donald Trump, who remains in the lead in the race for Iowa’s Republican nomination, according to statewide polling amassed by FiveThirtyEight. Trump is consistently garnering support from about half of Iowa Republicans, according to the polls.
Trump is the only candidate in attendance who has declined Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ invitation to sit down one-on-one for a “Fairside Chat.” Trump soured on Reynolds last month, after she affirmed that she would be staying neutral in the nomination contest.
“I opened up the Governor position for Kim Reynolds, & when she fell behind, I ENDORSED her, did big Rallies, & she won. Now, she wants to remain ‘NEUTRAL,'” he wrote in a blistering Truth Social post last month.
Trump, who currently faces three federal indictments, will arrive prepared to jab his chief rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who appears to be gaining on Trump in the Iowa polls, despite a turbulent few weeks for DeSantis’ campaign. Trump is bringing to Iowa a contingent of Floridian politicians who have endorsed him over their own governor.
The fair will also see visits from underdog candidates who are growing desperate for a “break-out moment” that can launch their popularity. Among them are Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who was the lone candidate to step off at Wednesday night’s parade commencing the event. Former Vice President Mike Pence is in a similar position, having just barely qualified for the Republican debate stage despite his formerly prominent position in the party.
The only Republican candidate who has not announced plans to attend the fair is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose late entry into the race has caused his campaign to focus on New Hampshire, another early state, rather than Iowa.
On the Democrats’ side, the two candidates challenging President Joe Biden for the nomination – author Marianne Williamson and anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. – will make brief stops at the fair. Biden himself, who remains the race’s clear frontrunner, has no plans to attend.
Democrats also will host programming on the fairgrounds to “contrast 2024 Republicans’ MAGA agenda with President Biden and Democrats’ record of success.” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Iowa Democratic Party Chair Rita Hart will hold a press conference to tout the party’s legislative victories.
The issue of abortion may loom over the festivities, since on Tuesday Ohio voters became the latest red-leaning state to side with Democrats on an abortion-related ballot measure.
Iowa recently passed its own law banning abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, though the tightest restrictions are temporarily blocked while it faces legal challenges. Republican candidates’ stances on abortion are especially important to Iowa’s evangelical voters, who make up a large voting bloc in the early primary state.
Since festivities began Thursday morning, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has squeegeed the window of the fair’s famous “Butter Cow,” after the refrigerated environment caused it to cloud; presidential candidate Larry Elder sat down with Reynolds; and presidential candidate Perry Johnson has toured the fair’s sheep barn.
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