The Iowa State Fair is a dichotomy, bringing together aspiring American Presidents with your common consumers of fried food on stick and butter sculpture enthusiasts. It’s a place where political aspirations can rise and fall, which makes it an event worthy of your attention.
The Iowa State Fair first started in 1854 with a budget of $323. It has since grown into a political event falling a year before the Iowa caucuses, which is the first major contest of the United States presidential primary season. The fair designates an area for the “soapbox” or the space for presidential candidates to speak. It’s semi-obligatory and fair goers vote on the best candidate with the corn kernel poll, where you literally place a kernel in a jar next to the candidate you liked the best. The results from Iowa help determine which candidates have enough support and potential to become the leader of the free world. Iowa represented the final straw for both Democrat Martin O'Malley and Republican Mike Huckabee in 2016.
Part of the difficulty of impressing Iowa State Fair goers is that candidates are expected behave like ordinary fair goers and partake in fair activities, including noshing on a wide variety of food options. On the sweeter side of the scale you have the staple deep fried Oreos. In addition, you can choose from snickers, milky ways or cookie dough stuffed waffles on a stick and peanut butter and jelly on a stick. For those that prefer the savory options, there’s caprese salad, a slopper (footlong hotdog with corn chips, chili and cheese sauce), or bacon wrapped deep fried Italian sausage on a stick.
For candidates with food restrictions participating in the fair fare presents a challenge. For example, 2020 candidate Tulsi Gabbard is vegetarian and Cory Booker is a vegan. No hot beef sundae for either of them.
Drinking beer is also a popular activity at the fair. In 2003, John Kerry made the wrong move and asked for a strawberry yogurt drink, making him appear different than the voters he was trying to connect with.
The state fair is a casual event. Most people wear clothes like jeans and t-shirts. But in 2007, Republican Senator Fred Thompson showed up sporting $500 Gucci loafers. As to not get them dirty, he chose to ride in a small, open vehicle instead of walking in the crowds. A few months later, Fred tied for third place with Iowa voters, and later withdrew from the campaign.
But for every misstep there have been some clear crowd pleasers. In 2007, Barack Obama played on rides with his children. He went on to win Iowa’s early voting and the national election. Even Donald Trump managed to impress at the Iowa State Fair in 2015. Arriving by private helicopter he let children take rides in it, which helped him secure a second-place finish in Iowa’s early voting.
This year, two 2020 Democratic candidates showed they belonged. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, founder of a successful brewery, poured beers at the craft beer tent and Sen. Amy Klobuchar joked that, coming from Minnesota, a state that also has a strong milk product industry and shows butter artwork at their fairs, she too has experience with butter sculptures.
Butter sculptures first showed their face at the fair in 1911 when J.K. Daniels sculpted the first butter cow. Norma “Duffy” Lyon, The Butter Cow Lady, popularized the butter sculptures with works like Garth Brooks, American Gothic, Peanuts characters, John Wayne, Elvis, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Hollywood took this story to the big screen in the 2011 movie Butter, which was a satire on the 2008 Iowa State Fair.
The natural question that follows is “What happens to all that butter once the fair is over?” Well, the state fair estimates that the sculptures are made with enough butter for 19,200 slices of toast, but I don’t think you’d want to use any. Turns out, the butter is reused from year to year, and some of it is up to a decade old. A melting pot indeed.