Election 2020 Why Wait

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock speaks at the Des Moines Register Soapbox during a visit to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines in Aug. 2018.

Twenty-three Democratic and one Republican presidential candidates — and no, it’s not President Donald Trump — are headed to the Iowa State Fair starting this week to be photographed eating deep-fried food on a stick, flipping pork chops and delivering soapbox speeches.

“It’s something candidates are expected to do and should want to do,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price said about the tradition of candidates’ soapbox speeches that begin Thursday on the fair’s opening day. “It’s an opportunity and a place to get your message out, a space to talk about why you’re running and to interact with some of the 100,000 Iowans who visit the fair each day.”

That’s something he and Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann agree on.

“I think it’s like parades. I don’t know if being there helps you, but if you don’t it could hurt you,” Kaufmann said. The soapbox is part of the essence of the Iowa caucuses “just like showing up at chicken dinners and steak fries.”

“It’s a mystique that honors the tradition of the first-in-the-nation caucuses,” he said.

The parade of candidates will start at 12:45 p.m. Thursday when Montana Gov. Steve Bullock takes the stage along the Grand Concourse in front of the Horner Service Center. He’ll be followed at 1:30 p.m. by former Vice President Joe Biden.

Twenty candidates will speak over the next few days after that — six Friday, nine Saturday and five Sunday. There will be one speaker each Aug. 13 and 17. The dates and times of speakers is subject to change.

Trump has not accepted the Des Moines Register’s invitation to speak from its soapbox. So the lone Republican in the lineup will be Bill Weld, former GOP governor of Massachusetts and the vice presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party in 2016. This time he is challenging Trump for the GOP nomination. It will be his first campaign visit to Iowa.

Trump’s visit in 2015 may have set a bar few candidates are likely to clear. He arrived in his personal helicopter, which took children for a flight as he spent about 30 minutes at the fair.

Attendance that day, which was the same day rivals Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders visited, set a State Fair record. However, fair manager Gary Slater said favorable weather may have had as much to do with attendance as the politicians. That year, the fair drew 1.12 million visitors.

Kaufmann and Price both recommend candidates do the soapbox.

“I like to see them be at the State Fair, but just being at the fair won’t get you as much press coverage as being on the soapbox,” Kaufmann said.

It may not be as important for Biden “as for someone fighting for name recognition,” he said. “When you think of some of the unknowns running in the Democratic Party or the unknown Republicans running in 2015, they wouldn’t have a prayer if this started anyplace else.”

It’s an opportunity for candidates to talk to regular Iowans and for those potential caucus-goers to interact with the presidential hopefuls, Price said.

Whether they’re farmers or live in rural areas or in a city, Iowans identify with Iowa’s agriculture heritage and economy, Price said.

“They’re looking for a candidate who can speak to that. Especially in regard to the tariffs and trade war, they’re looking for someone who can speak to those concerns,” he said.

But there are risks. Politicians on the soapbox can get heckled, like in 2011 when Mitt Romney said from the perch that “corporations are people, too.”

“Be prepared” for questions and heckling from interest groups and political opponents, Price advises candidates.

Iowa Citizens for Community Action will be among those there seeking to hold candidates accountable.

“We won’t miss our chance to ask candidates the important questions on issues like climate change, Medicare-for-all and holding corporations accountable for paying their fair share,” said Adams Mason, the organization’s state policy organizing director.

That interaction “underscores what’s different about Iowa and the caucuses — it’s a retail game,” Price said. “You’re not always going to be standing on an elevated stage behind a lectern.”

It’s not only the candidates who benefit from the attention, added Kaufmann, but the first-in-the-nation status of the caucuses.

“When I see the media coverage, that’s one more case I can make — and the Democratic chair can make — for why Iowa,” Kaufmann said.

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