Forget Twitter and Instagram and the world of social media.
The center of the political universe for the next week is the no-tech world of gently interrupting voters eating deep-fried mac and cheese and praising the butter sculptures.
This is the Iowa State Fair, 161st edition, where folks are more interested in lining up to see the lifesize butter cow and the new butter-crafted Monopoly board – really ‑ and strolling down Grand Avenue eating anything deep-fried.
Golden-fried peanut butter and jelly on a stick, anyone?
The politicians are here, giving short speeches on a soapbox surrounded by haystacks, trying their hand at cooking ribs, acting for all the world like one of the gang.
It’s the opposite of what many of them faced a week ago, when 24 million people watched the Republican presidential candidates debate in Cleveland, then blew up social media for days with reaction.
But the Iowans have the honor of kicking off the presidential primary season next year when they hold their caucuses on February 1. So right now, they matter most. That means even in wired 2015 America, the next president has to campaign like it’s 1915.
That can be tough sometimes. Take poor Mitt Romney. After being heckled while speaking at the fair’s soapbox, the 2012 Republican nominee uttered his now famous comment, "corporations are people, my friend."
"No, they’re not," some in his audience hollered back.
But to some presidential hopefuls, notably the last two Republican caucus winners, blending into the crowd seems as natural as devouring a tub of curly fries. Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and 2008 victor, warmed up Wednesday night by visiting a Waukee Pizza Ranch. (Its salad bar and fried chicken are highly regarded.) Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who won in 2012, plans a stint as "celebrity guest chef" at the Iowa Pork Producers’ tent Saturday.
If people miss them at the fair, the candidate’s probably in the vicinity. Democrats will gather for a "Wing Ding" Friday night in Clear Lake. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont seeking the Democratic nod, will hold a rally in Boone Saturday morning before heading to the fair. He could run into Donald Trump, who intends to helicopter in and pay homage to the butter cow. Republican Jeb Bush showed up Friday.
Butter sculpture afficionados can participate in butter sculpting contests each day at the fair.
What both 2016 contenders will find are young families, retirees and everyone in between more interested in tilt-a-whirls, cattle and donuts than the the national debt. If they show up early, they’ll see a rapt crowd listening to a chorus of the "The Star Spangled Banner" from a nearby rooftop.
August is state fair time around the country, and Iowa’s is one of the oldest. Look down the midway, and there’s a long line outside JR Mini Donuts. "The first stop for food," explained Richard Hink, an Ankeny, Ia., farmer. Not his first stop, though. That was the "twins contest," where judges award prizes to the twins who look most alike.
By late morning, the August sun is relentless and people start drinking "Pop."Lunch could mean chocolate dipped nut rolls on a stick, or hand dipped foot long corn dogs. (Now available gluten-free.) For dessert, there’s the Twinkie log, a Twinkie dipped in white chocolate and rolled in cashews. Down it all with a visit to the Craft Beer tent, where the Madhouse Brewing Company’s brew is one of the day’s specialties.
Few people are interested in talking hardball politics, and fewer still have made up their minds. Candidates are intruders, interrupting fairgoers at play, so the politicians have to be careful. Show you’re human, but don’t push too hard.
15% Percentage of Iowa Republicans telling Aug. 7-11 CNN/ORC poll they’ve “definitely decided” who to vote for next year
Lars Sivesind and his brother Landon were more interested in grooming their Guernsey cow. Lars shrugged when asked his opinion of candidates. "No one stands out," he said.
"I just don’t pay a lot of attention now," added Landon. They have a dairy farm in Waukon to run, and the caucus is a long way off.
Huckabee; Jim Webb, the former Democratic senator from Virginia; and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, another Democrat, spoke Thursday.
Let me begin with a recommendation: pork chop on stick
Mike Huckabee speaking at the Iowa State Fair
O’Malley walked around, paid his respects to the butter cow, and then talked to about 150 people at the soapbox. They were his fans, and some waited as long as an hour in the broiling sun. They wanted to take the measure of the man.
"You need to have a sense that someone is in this wholeheartedly," said Cathy Jury, a legislative assistant from West Des Moines.
On caucus night about six months from now, Iowans will visit their local community centers, libraries and firehouses, talk about their choices and vote. Chances are they may remember the fair, not for anything a candidate said, but how he or she looked and acted.
Did they have prepared quips about the butter cow or did they wing it? Did they savor the fried Milky Way bar, or take one bite and hand it to an aide?
Did they seem human? (O’Malley, in jeans and a blue sport shirt, sweated through the shirt.)
The candidate with the right spirit, and maybe the right digestive system, usually triumphs in the caucus. That’s why the fair matters.
"Iowans,” Jury said, “do expect a certain amount of genuineness.”