The Political Circus Is Coming to the Iowa State Fair

The soapbox can be easy target for hecklers. That could be why Clinton and Trump are expected to bypass the tradition.

on August 14, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan

It's called the Iowa State Fair, but it will feel more like the circus is coming to town on Saturday as the top Democratic and Republican presidential candidates descend, including one by helicopter, onto the fairgrounds.

Overlapping at times, Saturday's gathering will host Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Rick Santorum. Iowans say they can't recall another election cycle when so much political star power arrived at the fair on a single day.

"It's not just the debate stage that is getting crowded," said Matt Strawn, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa. "It's also going to be the main concourse of the Iowa State Fair."

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The visits comes as the presidential race on both sides of the political aisle remains extremely fluid, with the Republican side shocked by Trump's sudden surge.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush eats a deep-fried Snickers bar as he tours the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Aug. 14, 2015.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush eats a deep-fried Snickers bar as he tours the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Aug. 14, 2015.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

With the Iowa caucuses less than six months away, the fair was destined to be an important political event. The cancellation of the Iowa Straw Poll—typically held by Republicans in early August—placed even greater significance on the fair.

Trump, however, won't get to make the grand entrance he'd once envisioned. Officials balked at his plans to give helicopter rides to children at the fair, so Trump is now expected to land outside the fairgrounds, speak with reporters and then make his way to the dairy sculpture that is the butter cow. Staff members plan to stay behind in a parking lot to administer the helicopter rides, a campaign official told CNN.

At least one other candidate seemed eager to tweak Trump for his mode of transportation—and for not spending enough time on the ground in Iowa.

"You can't helicopter in and leave,” former Florida Governor Jeb Bush told Bloomberg's Mark Halperin. “You gotta be all in, subject yourself to people's questions.”

Just a Day at the Fair With Jeb

Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, the state's top Republican, said he doesn't think Trump's helicopter landing will matter much to Iowa caucus-goers. "It will give him some notoriety, but I'm not sure, at the end of the day, that will translate into votes," he said.

On Thursday, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was the first to make the pilgrimage. He was followed Friday by Bush.

With Democrats and Republicans combined, more a dozen-and-a-half presidential candidates are expected to visit during the 11-day run. They'll nibble on corn and fried candy bars, as they pose for cameras and meet a few potential voters along the way.

"The last thing you will want to be is a parent pushing a stroller down the concourse on Saturday," Strawn said.

One key stop is the Des Moines Register's political soapbox, where candidates are asked to speak or answer questions for no more than 20 minutes. It's a venue that makes an easy target for hecklers, one possible reason why both Clinton and Trump are expected to bypass the tradition.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush appears at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 14, 2015.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush appears at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 14, 2015.
Photographer: John McCormick/Bloomberg

Four years ago, it was on the soapbox where eventual Republican nominee Mitt Romney said in response to a heckler, "Corporations are people, my friend." The comment hung over Romney, a multimillionaire and former private equity executive, for the remainder of the campaign.

The midday visits Saturday to the fairgrounds by Clinton, the former secretary of state, and Trump, the billionaire reality television star, will roughly overlap. That will present challenges to the throng of national media at the fair patrolling for political news, color and gaffes.

Clinton will likely be gone from the fairgrounds by the time Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont challenging her for the Democratic nomination, makes his way to the Register's soapbox. Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who won the Iowa caucuses in 2012 and has trailed in the polls this year, is also expected to tour the fairgrounds on Saturday.

Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, a Republican elected in 2014, said the presidential candidates are an attraction for some fair-goers, while not so much for others.

"One of the reasons Iowans come to the state fair is because of those candidates," she said. "But some of them, you'll find them staying over in the sheep barn or cattle barn to just maybe avoid the madness."