Want to Be President? Just Ask Iowans

Attendees waited to hear gubernatorial candidates speak at the fair last week.
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DES MOINES — A year from now, this will be the political epicenter of the country.

The Iowa State Fair: where presidential ambitions are made and broken; where a selfie of a candidate eating a double bacon corn dog is worth its weight in electoral gold.

The New York Times spent four days talking to fairgoers, who provide a political bellwether for the 2020 presidential election and the midterms in November.

“It’s not Iowa’s job to pick the president,” said Paul D. Pate, the Iowa secretary of State. “It’s our job to ask the questions you would want asked.”

The relentless politicking seems to be testing the outer limits of “Iowa Nice,” but the state relishes its role as the first presidential caucus in the nation.

“They’re already coming,” said Steve Townsend, 63, as he strolled the main strip with his wife, Sandy. “It never ceases. We might get six months off, and then we go back at it again.”

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Iowans demand one thing: authenticity. Jacqueline Ehrlich, the 2017 Iowa State Fair queen, said if a candidate smiles at a someone at the fair, only to turn around and frown, this would indicate to her that a real connection was not made. “We’ll be able to see through it if you’re all talk and no show,” she said.

If you’re going to raise taxes, come out and say it,” said José Medina, 68, a dental technician who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but now supports President Trump. “But don’t lie to Iowans. They don’t like that.”

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In a state where farmers rule, Iowans are quick to talk trade, gas prices, ethanol and farm subsidies. Zach Eberling, a 22-year-old construction worker who voted for President Trump, said that tariffs were hurting family farms.

“Study up and help the farmers out,” he said, while steadying a dairy cow into position. “They’re suffering right now.”

But Iowans’ needs go beyond the farmhouse. Jennifer Hanssen, a nurse who entered her daughters in the fair’s “Twins Triplets and More Contest,” said health care costs were crippling to her family.

“My husband and I both work, all the time, and we’re still just paycheck to paycheck, all the time,” she said. “We want somebody who can help us, relate to us and understand our struggles and what we go through.”

And in the nonstop political roller coaster of Mr. Trump’s presidency, Ms. Hanssen said she wanted someone who could reach across party lines. “I want to see someone who will bring us together,” she said.

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In 2015, Mr. Trump, then a long shot for the Republican nomination, arrived at the fair by helicopter, and put in place a robust field operation in Iowa. He came in second place in the Iowa caucus, just a few points behind Senator Ted Cruz, and beat Hillary Clinton in the general election here.

But Mr. Trump’s success in 2020 is not guaranteed. Many supporters here said they would wait to see how he fares in trade battles this year, though some balked at the idea of challenging a sitting Republican president.

“My suggestion to any of the Republican wannabes is they need to get behind Trump,” said Jim Mosher, 57, a farmer.

Julius Williams, a 36-year-old marketing analyst from Des Moines who has gone to the fair all his life, had this advice for candidates: “Be one of the crowd. Be one of the people that can actually relate.”

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Though big-name candidates largely watched the fair from the sidelines this year, lesser-known presidential hopefuls couldn’t wait. Michael Avenatti, Stormy Daniels’s lawyer, said he was considering a presidential bid as he wandered the fairgrounds with a CNN crew; John Delaney, a Democrat who declared his candidacy last year, stumped from the Des Moines Register’s soapbox.

The newspaper’s chief political reporter, Brianne Pfannenstiel, said candidates need to be prepared to show their true selves. Campaigning at the fair, she said, is “like bringing your significant other home to Thanksgiving for the first time.”

As Mr. Delaney made his pitch, John Boehner strolled to the back of the crowd, drawing the attention of reporters. When he finally realized what was happening, Mr. Delaney acknowledged the former House speaker.

“I appreciate you coming out and supporting me,” he said. “I really do.”

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