Updated Aug 15, 2023, 6:14pm EDT
politicsNorth America

DeSantis is alive, corn dogs are dead: Takeaways from the Iowa State Fair

REUTERS/Scott Morgan

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The Scene

DES MOINES – “Sweet Caroline” was playing on the sound system. Asa Hutchinson was talking, once again, about Donald Trump.

What did he think of last night’s indictments in Georgia? Did he agree with the conservative lawyers who thought Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election disqualified him from running again? What did Trump’s dominance say about the GOP?

“I said over a year ago — over a year ago — that Donald Trump should withdraw from the race because of what he is facing,” said the former Arkansas governor, who’d wrapped a policy-focused “FairSide chat” with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds before climbing offstage to meet the press. “I just want to focus on the policy initiative — I want to have a state based visa program.”

The playlist switched to “Don’t Stop Believin,” and a reporter, who had joined the gaggle late, asked their question: What did he think of last night’s indictments in Georgia?

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David’s view

Donald Trump spent less time at the Iowa State Fair than any other candidate who made the trip — a brief, motorcade-assisted stop at three venues, with a short speech at a Western-themed bar. But his shadow loomed over the 10-day event — traditionally, a way for candidates trying to introduce themselves to Iowans to meet huge crowds and display their down-to-earthness.


Some of that happened at the fairgrounds. But, as someone who has now attended seven of these annual fairs, there was more caution than in years past. The Republican field, and two of the Democrats challenging President Biden, tried to cut through the noise of legal warfare one thousand miles away. Did it work? Well, sometimes. Here are five big takeaways.

1. Trump’s opponents can’t take advantage of his troubles. Trump’s flood-the-zone fair strategy worked, giving him most of the first weekend’s earned media, including photos and videos of massive crowds that venerated him. It was especially effective because Trump had the fair wired, filling it with staff and volunteers who collected caucus commitment cards, then rotating surrogates in and out to spread his gospel all week.

It was also effective because only Hutchinson, who has yet to qualify for next week’s debate, was willing to criticize him.

Nikki Haley, who bemoaned that the media was “obsessed” with Trump, continued to talk about her former boss euphemistically — an unnamed candidate who would cause the party to get distracted. After Friday’s news that the U.S. attorney probing Hunter Biden had been made a special counsel, the candidates quickly embraced the consensus of House Republicans: It was, said Vivek Ramaswamy, a “total fig leaf” meant to protect the Bidens from the sort of treatment Trump got.

“They’ve never been able to get him on any of these charges,” said Shaun Troutner, who showed up to hear DeSantis on Saturday. “It’s a big distraction. That’s why there’s so many of these other guys — they hope one of the charges will stick.”


2. Ron DeSantis isn’t dead yet. Crowdsmanship aside, DeSantis had a nearly ideal fair day — gaffe-free, with plenty of well-wishers and photo ops. He was the only candidate protested at Reynolds’s candidate sit-downs, a disruption by the left-wing group “Bitches Get Stuff Done” that didn’t derail the event, but underlined how progressives feared him, which is part of his pitch. (Heather Ryan, the group’s founder, told me that DeSantis was “the most active fascist in the Republican Party besides Trump.”)

No rival has really taken advantage of DeSantis’s early stumbles. As embarrassing and long-lasting as the “reset” storyline was, it was true: DeSantis is now out-working the field in Iowa. His fair trip was bracketed with events across the state, hitting six of Iowa’s 99 counties on Friday. And in conversations with fair-goers, DeSantis and Ramaswamy’s names came up the most frequently, by far, when considering who’d be a strong nominee if Trump couldn’t make it.

3. Republicans have created new media — but it’s not safe from fake news. As Ben Smith wrote on Sunday, Reynolds’s brand new “FairSide” events gave candidates a safer space to campaign than the Des Moines Register’s traditional soap box. They were largely news-free, but Republican voters don’t need to hear their candidates react to the day’s stories — they want to meet them. Trump, DeSantis, and Tim Scott avoided the soap box, sparing themselves any heckling (which Mike Pence got) and an image of them in front of men holding a banner that read EAT A CORNDOG YOU COWARD. (The men refused to identify themselves.)

These safe spaces are not safe from fakery. Several media outlets misidentified the protesters at DeSantis’s FairSide chat as Trump activists; that myth traveled further after a Twitter account called “miguelifornia” shared video that spliced audio of Trump chants at the pork booth (real) into video of DeSantis getting protested (no chants there).

And traditional media, and its influence, isn’t dead yet. Tim Scott, who walked through the fair on Tuesday, was recognized constantly, stopped by well-wishers who’d seen him on TV. That was the fruit of a decade of high-profile media appearances as a Black Republican who wanted his colleagues to recognize that racism was real, and went after liberals for patronizing him. (Only one fair-goer, out loud, mistook him for Barack Obama.)


4. The corndog era is over. Campaigns have wrestled control of their images from the media in another way: Refusing to let the candidates do anything goofy. There would be no new version of “John Delaney morosely goes down a slide,” or “Michele Bachmann bites into a footlong corndog.”

While cameras were near — and they were always near — the candidates didn’t eat anything. They flipped “pork burgers” at the industry’s booth, avoiding the pork chop on a stick. They strolled past concession stands for more vigorous photo ops, at the games inside Thrillville. No one lingered too long in front of the massive “SWINE” sign above that particular barn.

Ron DeSantis helped put eggs on sticks, but the evidence was missing from the campaign’s email roundup. The DeSantis family riding in bumper cars? That made it in. Donald Trump walked past a grill without using it; his campaign paid $20,000 for food and drinks for other people. Flying out without providing any meme fodder was priceless.

5. Joe Biden wasn’t there, and his competitors showed why. It wasn’t surprising that Joe Biden skipped the state fair: Incumbent presidents normally don’t show, and Democrats have kicked Iowa down their primary calendar with his permission, after he placed fourth in a disastrous 2020 caucus that took days to resolve. At the Iowa Democratic Party’s booth, Biden’s presence was limited to a couple of campaign signs, outnumbered by pro-choice “People Over Politics” merchandise. A bookshelf of memoirs by famous Democrats included one by Pete Buttigieg, one by Kamala Harris, and none by Biden.

That gave Marianne Williamson and Robert F. Kennedy the run of the place. The fair was the most traditional stop of Kennedy’s four-month campaign, his first chance to mingle with voters as other candidates crossed his path. Not his fault; the Democratic National Committee, as he reminded reporters, supports Biden and won’t schedule a debate, a situation he called “soviet.” And at the Des Moines Register’s soapbox on Saturday, Kennedy drew one of the week’s biggest crowds, dwarfed only by the one following Trump around.

The crowd didn’t hear a traditional stump speech. Kennedy brought out campaign manager Dennis Kucinich — “he’s like my Vanna White” — to hold a map displaying pipelines that Gov. Kim Reynolds wanted to approve. He was leveraging his fame and candidacy to draw attention to a topic that wasn’t top of mind for voters, because he thought it should be – and it didn’t stop the cries of “Trump Kennedy 2024!” from the back of the crowd.

Later, standing before the butter cow, Kennedy rambled to NBC News’s Ali Vitali about abortion, endorsing a ban after three months of pregnancy, then a 15-week ban, seemingly unaware of when a baby can survive outside the room. By the end of Saturday his campaign had retracted the answer, saying he “misunderstood” a question posed, since the Dobbs decision, to every candidate. There is real pan-partisan interest in Kennedy, much of it passionate. The fair demonstrated why the White House ignores him anyway.

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  • In the Washington Post, Dan Balz sees DeSantis steadying himself in Iowa: “There were reminders of why the Florida governor, though distinctly trailing, remains Trump’s principal rival for the nomination.” In National Review, Dan McLaughlin witnesses the same thing.
  • In the Guardian, David Smith meets the people praising Mike Pence at the state fair, and the people heckling him; in The Atlantic, Elaine Godfrey finds that Pence wasn’t the only candidate getting humiliated: “Why did we have to come on the day that all the politicians are here?”