The day the 2016 circus came to the Iowa State Fair started out quietly. There were no lines for fried food, little girls with long golden braids walked their honey-colored spotted cows into a waiting pasture.
Somewhere in the distance, a woman sang the national anthem—officially bringing the first weekend of the annual agriculture-fest to a start.
This calm would soon be shattered by a series of political sideshows with varying degrees of intensity and celebrity—a microcosm of the debate taking place on the national stage where two megastars vie for the spotlight and everyone else watches, hoping for a misstep that could lead to their day in the sun.
The Iowa State Fair is a rite of passage for those seeking the presidential nomination for their respective parties. Here, they are expected to mingle, sweat it out, eat fried food and stump at the Des Moines Register’s Soapbox (Clinton and Trump declined to participate in this tradition—more on that later) in order to earn Iowan admiration and, later, their votes in the Iowa Caucus.
It was here Mitt Romney made the “corporations are people” remark that stuck with him the rest of the 2012 campaign.
Today, it was all about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump...oh, right, and Iowans.
Just after 11 a.m. just outside a white wooden fence that ringed the cow pasture—the first attraction was about to begin.
Clinton, wearing a fair-appropriate blue gingham jacket, entered to the claps of a few supporters who were allowed into the area set aside for her brief press conference.
She took a picture with a small child, she awwed over a black-and-white cow.
She strolled to the podium with her latest endorsement, progressive lion Senator Tom Harkin by her side. (subtext: Are you listening, Joe Biden?)
Clinton called the endorsement “a special moment here at the fair.”
(Asked about the timing of the endorsement given that in 2008 he did not endorse, and in 2004 he endorsed Howard Dean just days before the Iowa Caucus, Harkin demurred: “My support for Hillary for president has nothing to do with other people.”)
Then came the questions about her emails:
“I never sent classified material on my email...it’s not anything people talk to me about as I travel around the country,” she said.
Then it was time to meet voters—if they dared.
In order to meet Clinton, a voter had to get through concentric circles of cameras, the highway patrol, and barrel-chested Secret Service agents dressed in security-casual golf shirts. The large mob was closely followed by a large black SUV that awkwardly drove through the main concourse, ringed by people.
“I saw her hair!” one fan proclaimed.
April Strumpf, one of the Iowans that managed to speak to Clinton, said she spoke to her about the importance of medical marijuana legalization. Her daughter, Quinn, was on a number of medications to ease her seizures, she explained.
Clinton, she said, told her it was important to research the subject but did not commit to support medical cannabis.
Either way, Strumpf indicated, Clinton had her support.
To others she raved about her granddaughter (“crazy” about her) and marveled at the famed butter cow (“I love it!”).
“We can see her before she has her prison stripes on,” heckled a man who identified himself as Denny. “She’s enjoying her last days of freedom.”
A few feet away from the haze of selfies, handshakes, and barking Secret Service agents, stood an apron-clad Rick Santorum flipping pork chops at the grill.
The grill is usually a must stop for the normal candidates—i.e. those not named “Clinton” or “Trump” this time.
“All I know is I was the guy flipping burgers. The people of Iowa are looking for someone that relates to them and the problems they face in their lives,” Santorum told The Daily Beast.
As Santorum stood frying, and Clinton was shaking hands, a noise made fairgoers look skyward—only to see a navy blue helicopter with the word “TRUMP” buzz by.
“Trump!” several people said in unison as it continued into the distance.
The main event had finally arrived. Hillary was but a memory of the photo-snapping crowd.
The man himself arrived in a chariot—OK, it was a golf cart—with a phalanx of security guards, the highway patrol, reporters and a lone, thin kid in a Trump for President shirt who tried in vain to help keep the crowd in line.
It was like a gilded conch was blown across the vast fairgrounds. On a spot where just minutes before a few people had stood, suddenly hundreds of visitors began to flock. Waving, reaching, screaming his slogan “Make America great!”
Think The Beatles—but oranger and with red polyester hats.
“I see him!”
Followed by the warning from a state trooper, “You have to stand to the side. Let's go!”
And over and over.
Their regent rewarded their tenacity by touching their hands, taking selfies and half-mouthed/half-vocal thank yous.
When one fan yelled that his crowd was 10 times bigger than Hillary’s, Trump repeated the comment (and will likely do so again and again).
Larger and larger the crowd grew—following Trump’s red hat through the fair—growing as they made their way to the same pork chop hut Hillary Clinton had visited earlier in the day.
One man, just behind Trump, removed his shirt. And continued to walk, transfixed.
Standing on a bench watching the melee was Gloria Morris of Des Moines.
“I think it’s scary,” she said when she was asked what she made of the scene. “What part of America is he tapping into?”
The Trumpcopter flew by again—it was giving children rides, of course—cheers of “Trump!” spread through the crowd.
Earlier, upon landing, Trump held a press conference. When asked if he has made any mistakes in the campaign, he retorted, “I don’t think I’ve made mistakes. I mean every time somebody has said I’ve made a mistake, they do the polls and my numbers go up … I’m sure I will at some point, but so far you would have to say it hasn’t worked out badly, right?”
“I love Roger Ailes, but all you have to do is ask Roger Ailes, ‘Who won?’”
As Trump tore into a pork chop on a stick, across the fair Senator Bernie Sanders took the stage, cheered by a large crowd sporting “Feel the Bern” swag.
Like the grilling of the pork chops—both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump chose to skip the traditional “Soapbox” speech.
Maybe it was to avoid a Romney-esque “corporations are people” moment—or maybe they just didn’t feel like they had to.
Either way, Sanders stood ready to own the stage.
“Everybody said the campaign was a joke and no one believed that the American people are prepared to take on the economic and political establishment of America,” Sanders said. “In three and a half months ...we have had huge crowds all over America in Iowa, New Hampshire, California, Oregon, you name it!”
“The American people are saying, ‘Enough is enough,’” he added.
As Sanders delivered a speech full of progressive agenda points—$15 minimum wage, paid maternity leave, free college tuition—Laurie Bartz of Mason City cheered every line.
“We’ve seen Hillary speak. To me, there is just a huge difference between the way they present themselves. I think the country is ready for something different,” Bartz said. “I feel like when we’ve seen Hillary speak it’s like, soundbites, it’s little snippets of what people want to hear—trying to make light of some of the issues she’s had in her past, and I don’t find that even funny or interesting anymore.”
As Sanders neared the end of his speech, the Trumpcopter again flew through the sky.
(“Trump!” murmured the crowd.)
“Oh, look, there’s Donald Trump,” Sanders said. “I apologize. We left the helicopter at home. I forgot to bring it.”