Why Is the Iowa State Fair So Important?

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

[Get On Politics delivered to your inbox.]

The smell of fried Twinkies hangs in the air. Pork chops sizzle on the grill. The butter cow is cold, and the prizewinning pigs are snoozing.

Yes, it’s that very special time of year, again: the Iowa State Fair.

As for all good political reporters, this festival of agribusiness, everything-fried-on-a-stick and politics has been a quadrennial stop of mine for years now.

Eight years ago, I watched as a testy Mitt Romney told a heckler: “Corporations are people, my friend.” It was a remark immediately seized on by Democrats to paint the former Massachusetts governor as an out-of-touch corporate raider. And, perhaps, a harbinger of the gaffe-prone candidacy to come.

Four years ago, the then-candidate Donald J. Trump circled the fairgrounds in his helicopter as Hillary Clinton dutifully made her way through the fair, examining a Monopoly-themed sculpture made of butter and schlepping around a pork chop on a stick. Perhaps another harbinger of things to come.

But this year, amid the bacon-wrapped pig wings and corn stalker cocktails, I find myself wondering: Does how you eat your pork chop on a stick still matter?

Twenty-two candidates plan to speak at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox over the next four days. (Former Representative Beto O’Rourke canceled yesterday to stay in his grief-stricken hometown, El Paso.)

On Thursday, former Vice President Joe Biden made the rounds, making his way through the fair surrounded by a pack of sweaty and stumbling reporters. “Thanks for coming to Iowa, Joe,” shouted a passing fairgoer. “Go get ’em!” cheered another.

Despite Mr. Biden’s mixing and mingling at the fair, this remains a race that has been dominated by the national media environment.

Strong performances at the early town hall events hosted by Fox News and CNN boosted Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., into the top tier and filled campaign coffers for some of his rivals who also spoke at town halls in the spring. As in the Republican primary in 2016, the debates have driven coverage, giving boosts of momentum to Senator Kamala Harris of California and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Beyond those nationally televised events, little has broken through in a major way to voters — at least not in a way that has significantly shifted the polls away from Mr. Biden, whose support held statistically steady at 28 percent according to a new Monmouth University poll released by on Thursday morning.

The Democratic primary candidates have to spend this weekend at the fair: Skipping it entirely would be interpreted as a huge insult to those first primary voters. And Iowa certainly matters, a lot. A win — or a close second or third — in the first voting state catapults a candidate into the many contests that follow.

But the truth is that no matter how well you do at the fair, people care only if you mess up or literally fly into the event in a helicopter. Otherwise, it’s hard to make news, particularly at a time when the stock market is tumbling and the country is so on edge that the sound of a falling sign in a Salt Lake mall sent Americans running for cover. And with so many candidates, most are likely to be relegated to a photo slide show of politicians going down the big slide.

A major gaffe — like besmirching the sanctity of butter or somehow insulting corn — could haunt a candidacy. But a boffo performance? Hard to see it breaking through. Even in Iowa.


Drop us a line!

We want to hear from our readers. Have a question? We’ll try to answer it. Have a comment? We’re all ears. Email us at [email protected].


Things have been tense on social media this week. Our colleague Matt Stevens sent us this:

Senator Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign remained locked out of its Twitter account on Thursday after posting a tweet that included a video of people making violent threats against the majority leader in front of his Louisville, Ky., home.

The Twitter lockout punctuates a turbulent week for Mr. McConnell’s campaign, which drew criticism after two separate episodes involving social media, and for Mr. McConnell himself. The majority leader is recovering from a fractured shoulder and is under pressure from lawmakers to bring up gun control legislation in the Senate in the wake of last weekend’s two mass shootings.

Critics of Mr. McConnell’s stance on gun control have pilloried him on Twitter using the hashtag #MassacreMitch.


A new international report finds that climate change is threatening the ability of humanity to feed itself, threatening to disrupt and, over time, shrink the global food supply.

The Schoolteacher and the Genocide. A Rohingya teacher tries to keep his people’s history — and future — alive.

President Trump does something unusual: express regret. The Washington Post’s deep dive into the death of the president’s brother, Fred Jr., from alcoholism.


Once upon a time, I helped with the making of a turducken. So I feel qualified to say that this is truly next level.


Were you forwarded this newsletter? Subscribe here to get it delivered to your inbox.

Thanks for reading. Politics is more than what goes on inside the White House. On Politics brings you the people, issues and ideas reshaping our world.

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected].


more recommended stories

  • A Gyrating Economy, and Trump’s Volatile Approach to It, Raise Alarms

    The tweet on corporations being “ordered”.

  • Trump Aides Slam French for Focusing on ‘Niche Issues’ at G7

    At their impromptu lunch on Saturday,.

  • Ahead of G7, Trump Asserts He Can Force U.S. Companies to Leave China

    Mr. Trump’s threat to invoke the.

  • Democratic Field Shrinks to 21: This Week in the 2020 Race

    “I’m not going to be the.

  • California Is the ‘Popular Boy or Girl at the Dance’ in 2020

    LOS ANGELES — At an auditorium.

  • With Time Running Short, Patriots Unlikely to Make White House Visit

    The New England Patriots won the.

  • Joe Biden Asks Audience to Imagine Obama’s Assassination

    He recalled his early support for.

  • Trolling Trump, Joe Walsh Tries to Recruit George Conway for Nascent Challenge

    WASHINGTON — Joe Walsh, a conservative.

  • David Koch on Free Markets and Taxes in 2009 Speech – Video

    By C-SPAN | Aug. 23, 2019.

  • American Jailed in Moscow on Spy Charges Says Guards Injured Him

    MOSCOW — Paul N. Whelan, a.

  • On Politics: Biden’s Enthusiasm Challenge

    There are signs of a disconnect.

  • Electoral College Members Can Defy Voters’ Wishes, Court Rules

    In a ruling that kicks at.

  • On Politics With Lisa Lerer: Andrew Yang’s Bipartisan Bet

    Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your.

  • How to Rebound After a Disaster: Move, Don’t Rebuild, Research Suggests

    Want climate news in your inbox?.

  • Joe Biden’s Poll Numbers Mask an Enthusiasm Gap

    There are signs of a disconnect.

  • Bernie Sanders Unveils $16 Trillion ‘Green New Deal’ Plan

    WASHINGTON — Senator Bernie Sanders on.

  • A Former Congressman and Tea Party Republican Considers a Challenge to Trump

    Mr. Kristol said Mr. Walsh’s comfort.

  • Jay Inslee Ends Campaign for President

    Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, who.

  • Bernie Sanders Sets a Goal: Double Union Membership in 4 Years

    ALTOONA, Iowa — Senator Bernie Sanders.

  • American Military Drone Shot Down Over Yemen

    WASHINGTON — An American military drone.

  • In Denmark, Bewilderment and Anger Over Trump’s Canceled Visit

    ODENSE, Denmark — The astonishment in.

  • Putting a Positive Spin on Oil Exploration in the Arctic Refuge

    When the Trump administration first pushed.

  • On Politics: Trump Returns to N.R.A.’s Side

    Gun rights advocates have waged an.

  • President Trump Cancels Trip to Denmark After Greenland Spat

    WASHINGTON — President Trump on Tuesday.

  • Why the 2020 Criminal Justice Debate Is Completely Different

    Marijuana would be decriminalized, mass incarceration.

  • As Wildfires Get Worse, Insurers Pull Back From Riskiest Areas

    “It’s not necessarily the property that’s.

  • Julián Castro Qualifies for the Next Democratic Debate

    The former housing secretary Julián Castro.

  • Trump’s Rollback of Auto Pollution Rules Shows Signs of Disarray

    That means the process is now.

  • On Politics: Trump Prepares for Economic Trouble

    • Justice Department lawyers told the.

  • Jill Biden, Stressing Trump Matchup, Makes a Blunt Case for Her Husband

    Jill Biden laid out the political.

  • Apologies and Scorn Greet News of a Book by Mark Halperin

    Reports of a new book deal.

  • ‘I Am Sorry for Harm I Have Caused,’ Warren Tells Native American Forum – Video

    Channels & Shows Home Search U.S..