Footnotes on the 2020 Caucus is an occasional series observing some of the traditions, rituals and oddities of the Iowa presidential caucuses.
Anjali Huynh, a 2019 Iowa City West High School graduate, was print managing editor of West Side Story during her senior year. She’s been a Little Village intern since 2018, and has covered everything from politics to a Halloween costume exchange. She will attend Emory University in the fall.
Thousands of people converge on Des Moines every year to eat colossal fried foods, ride rickety machines advertised as thrill rides and gaze at that wondrous creation, the butter cow. The annual two-week phenomenon that is the Iowa State Fair is well-known for its ample supply of pigs, people, meals on sticks and, once every four years, its parade of presidential candidates.
Livestock gets judged in the various barns at the fairgrounds, and candidates get judged at the Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox, a small stage where politicians explain their platforms and pander to Iowans for 20 minutes at a time.
There was no shortage of 2020 Democratic candidates on the first Saturday of the fair (Aug. 10). Starting at 9 a.m., fair-goers could listen to pitches from Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Joe Sestak, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, John Hickenlooper, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.
The Soapbox was where I — an 18-year-old Iowa-born-and-raised reporter — chose to spend a perfectly good summer Saturday, sweating to death as I listened to candidates attempt to persuade me of their ability to rescue the nation from certain doom.
My interest in politics, I’m ashamed to say, was born from a desire to get a selfie with a celebrity.
Prior to the 2016 Iowa caucus, actor Josh Hutcherson, known for playing Peeta Mellark in the Hunger Games films, toured Iowa with Bernie Sanders. My 14-year-old self jumped at the exciting prospect of getting a photo with a famous actor and, maybe, the future president of the United States. I knew little to nothing about Sanders’ platform. It’s likely I didn’t even know he was from Vermont. Yet there I was in the back of the Iowa Field House, cheering along with everyone else in the packed room.
The selfies didn’t happen, but the event sparked my curiosity about the political process that unfolds Iowa every few years. In February 2018, I attended another Sanders rally. This time the senator was campaigning against President Trump’s tax-cut plan, and this time I was covering it as a reporter for my high school newspaper, the West Side Story. (And this time, I finally got that selfie with Sanders.)
As the 2020 campaign season kicked off several months later, I decided to cover the candidates flowing into my state.
Over the past few months, I’ve discussed Trump’s negative rhetoric towards political opponents with Pete Buttigieg, thrown multiple foreign policy questions at Beto O’Rourke and talked my way into the press section at two Joe Biden events. So, it seemed fitting to squeeze in a few more candidates at the Iowa State Fair as well.
Like any good Iowan, I’ve made several trips to the fair in the past, so I was no stranger to the multitude of corndog stands or the rows of geese angrily pacing in their enclosures. What was strange, however, were the hordes of reporters and video cameras lined up in uneven rows in front of the Soapbox.
Despite covering the distance between Iowa City and Des Moines faster than the speed limit on I-80 allows, I missed the first speaker of the day — Gov. Jay Inslee, who had the 9 a.m. slot — but I did arrive in time for the second speaker, Sen. Kamala Harris.
At the Soapbox, the California senator mostly stuck to her usual stump speech. Although Harris’ remarks on stage didn’t particularly surprise me as a reporter or impress me as a voter, following her as part of the press pool after her speech yielded better results.
Harris was still taking pictures with fair-goers by the Soapbox stage when Rep. Tim Ryan, the next speaker, arrived with his wife and 5-year-old son Brady.
“Can I get a picture?” Ryan called out before Harris saw him. “I’m a huge fan.”
Watching Harris’ face light up, followed by her picking up Brady and asking him about the fair, was a high point of the day. It’s moments like this that humanize these celebrity-like candidates, showing that though their differences may lead to squabbles on the debate stage, they can still genuinely care about one another as individuals.
Being rather small, it was easy for me to slip in among the media crowding around Harris. I found myself, an intern for a relatively small Iowa magazine, rubbing shoulders with reporters from ABC, CNN, the Washington Post and other big names. Later, while scrolling through Twitter, I could see tweets about questions I’d heard asked only feet away from me.
When Harris went in search of fair food, I was in the horde of reporters that quickly followed. Armed with a Nikon camera that was significantly less advanced than the ones around me, and a phone doubling as both a recorder and notebook, I scrambled to get a spot as close to the senator as possible.
To be part of the action was a great experience. Though Harris didn’t take many photos with fans or talk to as many fair-goers as other candidates on Saturday, her personality shown through during food-related activities.
As Harris flipped pork burgers while standing next to the Iowa Pork Queen, I was right there, pressed up against the boiling hot grill and able to hear her say, “If I can flip burgers, I can flip conservatives too, right?”
Even though following Harris was remarkable experience for a young journalist, I found myself disheartened by the behavior of the reporters around me. Again and again, they shoved past strollers and individuals in wheelchairs or elbowed innocent passersby as they thrusted microphones towards the candidate. It was clear that they had little compassion for anyone simply trying to enjoy the fair experience.
After Harris’ departure, I grabbed a quick lemonade and waited for Sen. Amy Klobuchar to take the stage at the Soapbox. Klobuchar mainly stuck to her traditional talking points, reiterating her history of “winning every race in every place.” She came across as a bit bitter as she spoke of her lacking a “viral moment” during the campaign so far.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand took the stage a bit later and also repeated her stump speech, which, like Klobuchar’s, included stories of never losing an election and winning over conservative voters. Gillibrand’s most interesting moment came when she recounted how her 11-year-old son Henry joked about voting for Sen. Elizabeth Warren as president at the “Cast Your Kernel” booth, before ultimately voting for his mom.
Henry may have been kidding, but others weren’t. It was clear that fair-goers were excited to hear Warren on Saturday. The crowd for the Massachusetts senator was far bigger than any other candidate’s, with many interested individuals gathering at the Soapbox while former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper was still on stage.
Warren primarily discussed her “wealth tax” of two cents on every dollar an individual earns above $50 million, prompting the crowd to cheer “two cents!” repeatedly. She referenced the variety of plans she plans to pay for with this tax, from funding universal Pre-K to eliminating tuition at community colleges and public universities.
Trying to follow Warren after she left the stage was a major contrast to chasing after Harris, I soon discovered. The press packed around her long before I got there, and I struggled to enter the mass of reporters and patrons. Not only was the crowd bigger, but Warren’s determination to speak with as many individuals as possible heightened the challenge. Any time the senator’s campaign staff tried to move her along, she soon stopped for yet another fan wanting a photo or to profusely declare their dedication to her. Movement, when it happened, was very slow, and it only got worse as more fair-goers realized what was going on and joined the mass of people around Warren.
After grabbing a few lucky pictures of the senator, I resigned myself to the fact that following the still-growing mass of people around her was pointless, and returned to the Soapbox, where Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, the day’s last speaker, took the stage, his speech accented by guitar riffs from Slipknot’s sound check in the nearby grandstand.
Throughout the day, I experienced a lot of cognitive dissonance about what it means to be both an Iowan and a journalist. On one hand, I understood the reporters’ position: this was their career, and they only had moments with these high-profile individuals, so they were determined to make the most of them. However, as an Iowan, I know what the state fair means to so many people, and was unsettled by the journalists willing to set aside cordiality and common sense in their efforts to capture a photo or eavesdrop on a candidate’s words to a young supporter.
Moreover, it boggled my mind how little the questions asked by the reporters had to do with Iowa or even the candidates’ platforms. Reporters around me were fixated on unrelated current events — every candidate was asked about Jeffrey Epstein’s death — that few of the candidates were well-versed on.
The fair helped me realize the unique position I’m in as both as a first-time Iowa voter and a journalist. Not many young voters can say they’ve met 16 presidential candidates. And few political reporters can say they’ll be among the first to vote in the 2020 primaries.
At the beginning of the day, I’d planned to enjoy some of non-political parts of the fair and, of course, see the butter cow. But after seven hours of chasing presidential candidates in almost 90-degree weather, I was ready to collapse.
I gave up on my plans, and instead I trudged up the hill of parked cars, ready to go home. It was OK, I told myself. Most or all of these presidential candidates will be absent at next year’s fair, but the butter cow will always be there.