A Pageantry of Anti-Trumpism at the Iowa State Fair
When Ronald N. Langston heard that Bill Weld, the former Massachusetts governor and long-shot challenger to Donald Trump in the Republican Presidential primary, would be at the Iowa State Fair, he called the campaign to enlist as a volunteer. The annual event attracts such steady crowds that residents who live within spitting distance of the fairgrounds can lease out their lawns as parking lots, at ten dollars a spot. This year, the expected presence of some twenty Democratic Presidential candidates promised to draw even greater masses, along with the national press. Langston, a business consultant in Des Moines, previously worked for the Administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush; in the nineties, he became the first African-American to win a Republican nomination for the Iowa Senate. He reasoned that Weld, the lone Republican on this year’s soapbox, could use a local to shepherd him through the throng.
On Sunday, as a drizzle dampened the fairgrounds, Langston explained that he admired Weld for embodying a “commonsense mainstream Republicanism” that has been discarded by the sitting President. “The Party can do better,” he said, adding that, as a black Republican, he considered it his “moral responsibility” to uphold the values of the G.O.P. Shortly before Weld’s soapbox speech, Langston, in seersucker shorts, a straw hat, and a cobalt sweater, which he had cinched around his neck, held an umbrella over the candidate’s head as fairgoers settled into their seats. “My opinion is you’ve gotta come out and meet people,” he told me later, as Weld finished an interview nearby. “Iowans, you know, they like looking at you. They like to smell your breath.”
Weld, who is tall and ruddy, with bright blue eyes, was the Vice-Presidential candidate on the 2016 Libertarian ticket, which received more than four million votes. He switched back to the Republican Party this year, he has said, in the hopes of attaining a “direct shot” at the incumbent. On the soapbox, he hinted that his “old friends” in the Senate didn’t support Trump, though he declined to name them, saying that he’d wait “till I think the moment is right.” Republican leaders, he added, risk ceding control of the Senate if they don’t disavow the President. “It’s demagoguery in the first order,” he said, addressing a few dozen fairgoers. A handful of Trump supporters had also shown up to heckle Weld. (One of them shielded her face from the media with a black umbrella; another held up his middle finger.) Later in the day, glad-handing his way through the grounds, Weld described Trump as an extreme aberration; in hindsight, he said, his stint in the Oval Office will register as “a bad dream.”
Trump, who arrived at the state fair four years ago in a private helicopter emblazoned with his name—and offered rides to local children—has so far ignored an invitation to appear on the soapbox. But he has remained the focus of the fair’s political visitors. Since the fair kicked off, last Thursday, candidates for the Democratic nomination have alternated between excoriating the President and straining to showcase their own folksy approachability. The tone tends to swing, in an instant, from panic to whimsy. Pete Buttigieg, the most recent visitor of the fair, warned repeatedly on Tuesday that the country was “running out of time” before asking his massive crowd which greasy delicacy—a state-fair rite of passage—he should sample first. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren carried corndogs, as though they were torches, through the sweating masses of their fans. Joe Biden enjoyed some ice cream, but not before treating some of the children who trailed him to their own. Kamala Harris pincered a pork chop between painted nails. Andrew Yang brandished a turkey leg as he addressed the press. Cory Booker, a vegan, couldn’t eat much besides a deep-fried peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, from a yellow booth known as the Veggie-Table. He called that snack “a little slice of heaven.”
The sheer excess of politicos and media makes it easy to forget that the soapbox is the smallest stage at the fair, and rarely the most crowded. For every caucusgoer with a nitpicky policy question—every campaign volunteer distributing buttons and every correspondent crouching and writing notes to keep up with the candidate—there’s a preteen tap dancing in the talent show and a sunburnt senior cooling off in the swine barn. Behind the soapbox, in the air-conditioned Varied Industries Building, fairgoers browse ratchet pruners, creep feeders, sump pumps, retractable screens, cedar gazebos, Bluetooth speakers, hearing aids, massage chairs, home saunas, recumbent bikes, quilting machines, marble countertops, pool tables, koozies, Jacuzzis, alarm systems, firearm safes, and shot-repeating rubber-band guns. The same building hosts stalls for the state’s Republican and Democratic parties, which flank opposite sides of the entrance. The Democratic crew sounds a cowbell each time a new visitor registers to vote. The Republicans encourage passersby to pose for photographs with life-size cutouts of Trump, his wife, and the Vice-President. (A banner in the background scorns the “Green New Steal.”) “Last year, they just had the Trump one,” Allison Engel, who was manning the Democratic station, told me. “This year, they added Melania and Pence. My question is Where’s Mother? ”
Engel, an alumna of Iowa State University who went on to work as a reporter and speechwriter, eventually settled in the Los Angeles area, where she lived with her family for eighteen years. Last year, she and her husband, who was also working the station, relocated to Des Moines in order to support the Democratic Party. “We go back to California in the winter, but we changed our voting-registration address,” she said, adding that they had knocked on thousands of doors in the lead-up to last fall’s midterm elections. “We were that concerned about Trump.” Another volunteer cheered as the team registered their two-hundred-and-forty-ninth voter since the fair’s opening. It was a teen-ager celebrating his eighteenth birthday. Gesturing toward the G.O.P. stall, a volunteer whispered, “I don’t even think they’re registering.” When I stopped by to confirm this, a regional political director for Iowa’s Republican Party said that he did not feel comfortable speaking on the record and referred me to a communications official who was not at the fair. (A representative later confirmed that the booth was, in fact, registering voters.)
On Sunday, Weld skipped the visit to his party’s stall, perhaps sensing that he wouldn’t be welcome at a station whose most prominent signage promised to “Keep America Great.” Instead, he paused to admire the Budweiser Clydesdales, which brayed, captive, behind the metal bars of their stables, and made a scheduled stop to autograph a hundred-and-fifty-foot wind-turbine blade, separated from its rotor and showcased sideways on the lawn. By the time Weld arrived at the so-called corn caucus, where tradition compels Iowans to cast informal votes by dropping kernels into Mason jars, the rain had stopped, and Langston, standing a few steps away, had collapsed his umbrella. Like every other candidate, Weld voted for himself, donning a pair of eyeglasses to examine the standings and ignoring a booth worker who mistook him for John Hickenlooper, the former Democratic governor of Colorado.
Hickenlooper’s jar held just a few dozen of the thirty thousand kernels that had been cast by Tuesday afternoon. (Reports have surfaced that he might end his Presidential bid to run for the Senate.) Buttigieg, who, during his own visit to the corn caucus, had paused in mock consideration to consult the press about his choice, seemed pleased to see that he had captured sixteen per cent of the Democratic vote, according to a whiteboard updated every few hours with the results. It listed the totals for only four of his rivals in the primary: Biden (at twenty-four per cent), Warren (also at sixteen), Harris (at eleven), and Sanders (at nine). However crude its methodology, the corn caucus quantifies the struggles that certain campaigns have faced trying to gain support in the first caucus state. On Saturday, Kirsten Gillibrand gave her kernel to her eleven-year-old son, who joked about voting for Warren before his mother nudged his hand toward her own jar, which was nearly empty.
Weld’s first jar was only a third full of kernels, and yet, set beside a handsome, laminated photograph of the former governor, it looked somehow promising. On Tuesday, I spoke with Tim Gardner, a veteran of a local news station that coördinates the poll. It began in 2006, he told me, when, without anyone’s permission, a rogue political reporter arrayed a card table with his own Mason jars and a handful of corn. Gardner procured his team’s kernels, which are reused every year, from a feed mill down the street. Individual votes are calculated by the weight of the jars (Gardner logs the results in a series of spreadsheets that now date back to 2012.) This year, he estimated, the total count would reach over sixty thousand votes, slightly more than in 2015. That year, Trump triumphed, despite boycotting the soapbox after a feud with its sponsor, the Des Moines Register, which had run an editorial calling for him to quit the race. By Tuesday, he had clinched ninety-seven per cent of the Republican vote—a figure that seemed surprising because his stockpile, though growing, still hadn’t neared the rim of the displayed jar. Gardner laughed, pointing to sixteen more that were on the floor.