The Iowa State Fair is renowned for its role in presidential campaigns, as it often produces memorable moments that can shape the course of a candidate’s campaign. Over the span of ten days, the fair attracts around a million people, serving as a political obstacle course for candidates. Here, they must engage with voters in unscripted interactions, showcase their culinary skills by flipping a pork chop for the cameras, deliver their stump speeches in a public forum, and most importantly, enjoy fair food without falling prey to unflattering photographs. All of these events take place in front of hundreds of thousands of Iowa voters, swarms of reporters, and numerous TV cameras.
However, this highly anticipated event also comes with risks. Past incidents serve as cautionary tales. In 1987, Joe Biden faced accusations of plagiarism after lifting portions of a speech from British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock without attribution, ultimately resulting in his early withdrawal from the race. Similarly, in 2004, John Kerry, who struggled to connect with regular voters, ordered a strawberry smoothie during his visit, causing his aides to scramble in search of a corn dog to portray him as more relatable.
Another unforgettable moment took place in 2012, when Mitt Romney responded to a heckler with the infamous remark, “Corporations are people, my friend.” This comment became a symbol of Democratic attacks, which accused him of favoring businesses over American workers.
These incidents highlight the power of such moments to shape public perception of candidates, even if the facts are slightly warped. For instance, Senator Fred Thompson, a Republican nominee contender in 2007, supposedly traversed the fair in a golf cart while donning $500 Gucci loafers. However, years later, Thompson denied owning the shoes, showcasing how narratives can persist regardless of inaccuracies.
This year, all major Republican presidential candidates, with the exception of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, are expected to attend the fair. The highlight of the event will likely be on Saturday, as both former President Donald Trump and his main rival, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, will be making appearances. DeSantis is set to engage in a conversation with Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, while Trump plans to forgo the organized events and join an entourage of endorsers from Florida, rather than Iowa, as a subtle dig at DeSantis. Trump’s unique and unconventional approach to the fair became evident in 2015 when he created a media frenzy by landing his helicopter near the fairgrounds and offering rides to children.
With candidates vying for attention and support, the Iowa State Fair remains a pivotal moment in presidential campaigns, where a single interaction or statement can leave a lasting impact on the perception of potential leaders.