Although Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump havent confirmed if they will show up this year, fairgoers get ready for deep-fried everything and partisan games
Its opening day at the Iowa State Fair. The summer heat sticks like wet cotton candy. The rain spreads the smell of fried dough and penned livestock throughout the fairgrounds.
A throng of popped umbrellas makes its way toward the ticketing booth while volunteers theatrically wave cars into parking spots. A teenager with no hint of midwestern congeniality scans tickets. Somewhere nearby, a troupe of young children sing Our State Fair.
Our state fair is a great state fair / Dont miss it, dont even be late.
Its dollars to doughnuts that our state fair / Is the best state fair in our state!
What started more than 150 years ago as an agricultural expo has spun into one of the great American traditions, the state fair. Along the way, a quirk of the political process gave Iowa first draw in the presidential primaries, and brought the fair international recognition.
Its been one year since the most recent crop of presidential aspirants made the pilgrimage to Des Moines. The fields have been whittled. The parties have accepted their nominees, though not without dissent: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Despite a close race in Iowa, neither candidate has indicated they will attend the fair this year. Some Iowans dont mind.
Oh, I hate it! said Mitchell Collins, who said hes worked at the grandstand for too many years to count. The politicians come with their security details and all the press. The concourse is a mess. You just have to wait until they leave.
But presidential prospects playing Little House on the Prairie is good for business: the fair attracts more than a million visitors a year, and in 2014 the it pulled in more than $20m in revenue over its 11-day run.
Inside the Iowa state fair
For most of the world, the fair is a stage for Americas political debutantes. For local residents, its about everything else.
The fairgrounds, like a board game or the state itself, is mostly flat and rectangular. A concourse divides the 445-acre grounds. There are the Grandstand shows (Kiss, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Dierks Bently, Lady Antebellum), candy-colored midway rides, livestock competitions, livestock venues, obscure contests for cash prizes (eg the cow chip throwing contest and the twins and triplets lookalike contest), agricultural lessons (how to milk a cow) and vendors who hawk everything from John Deere tractors to cowhide lampshades.
But perhaps the fairs biggest draw is the local fare, mostly deep fried. On the menu: bacon-wrapped chicken wings, deep-fried nacho balls, Totchos (loaded tater tots), smoked chicken drummies wrapped in bacon, maple bacon funnel cake and, new this year, fruit kebobs fried in funnel cake batter.
At lunchtime, the fairground burns like a kiln. Fairgoers move down the concourse in a sluggish mass. Nearly every other person has their neck craned, teeth sunk deep into a pork chop. Not far enough away inside the Swine barn, pigs with names such as Buzzard Billy and Cotton Ball lie on wood chips in their pens.
Further down the fairway, visitors rotate through the agriculture building to take photos of the Butter Cow congealing behind a glass display. This year, the 600lb bovine is accompanied by a butter replica of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek.
Along the bottom of the display, a timeline traces the cows history: 1971: The cow is accompanied by a calf. [Sculptor Norma Duffy] Lyon loved sculpting cows but disliked sculpting calves.
The center of the political universe
The Iowa caucuses mark the official start of the presidential primary season, giving residents of this largely white state an outsized role in selecting Americas next leader. The price is that their beloved state fair turns into a political circus every four years.
The trick for out-of-town politicos is to blend in while standing out. Dress the part. Radiate down-home charm. And above all, indulge in the local cuisine, preferably something on a stick and ideally in view of the cameras.
Clintons discomfort with retail politics a meet-and-greet style that Iowans demand hurt her in the 2008 caucuses, when she finished third, behind Barack Obama and John Edwards.
But in 2015, Clinton returned, with staff, a security detail and a crush of reporters in tow, eager to prove shed learned her lesson. She wore a festive gingham blouse, chatted with fairgoers and gesticulated with full hands in one she held a pork chop on a stick and in the other a plastic bottle of fresh-squeezed lemonade.
Suddenly, the crowds gaze shifted upward. It was Trump zipping by in a helicopter, his name on its side. He wore a dark blazer a bold choice in 90-degree heat and his trademark Make America Great Again cap. From his entrance to his appearance, Trump upended, or perhaps ended altogether, a tradition of modern presidential politics.
Ive never seen anything like it, said Mike Nuttal, recalling the crowds manic response to Trumps arrival. Nuttal and his wife, Theresa, had hoped to glimpse the businessman, their choice for president, but they never got close enough.
The scene foretold a great deal: a humbled Clinton, in the midst of a meticulously laid plan that was torpedoed by Trump, making a flamboyant landing from thin air to Earth. Yet on that summers day in 2015, when given the chance, Clinton went after Jeb Bush. Trump was a celebrity sideshow.
Trump would lose Iowa, an embarrassing defeat for a man who despises losers. Clinton would declare herself the winner of the caucuses well before it was clear shed won. (The Associated Press called it the next morning: she won by a fraction of a point.)
Now the candidates are back in Iowa, steadying for a bruising battle for the states six electoral votes.
Iowa is the center of the political universe during the caucus period and then the morning after, we fall off the face of the Earth, said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University. Normally our electoral votes dont matter.
But this year is different, as Trumps path to the White House may depend on winning the state. And with less than 90 days before the election, opinion polls show voters here are evenly divided between and almost equally displeased with
Iowa is the swingiest swing state, said Tim Albrecht, GOP strategist in Iowa. But ultimately I think its Trumps to lose.
Trump and his vice-presidential candidate, Indiana governor Mike Pence, have visited the state a number of times in past weeks. Clinton returned to Iowa for the first time on Wednesday.
The Torres family, sitting on a bench along the fairs concourse, said they would vote for Clinton and wondered how it was possible so many people in their state could support Trump.
I want a president that supports equality, Jessica Torres said. She added that her family felt discriminated against by some of Trumps remarks about Mexicans and immigrants.
And a vital minority, still pursued by these un-Iowan politicians a year later, could again sway an election: the men and women who are undecided between the Washington fixture and the tabloid star of reality TV.
I dont know who Im going to vote for yet, Collins, the grandstand worker, said. I may go third party. I may just write in Donald Duck. But hey piece of advice. Dont leave without trying the red velvet funnel cake. You wont regret it.