What Iowa voters want most is for government to work.
They’re not so much fuming as they are disappointed and disgusted with Washington and politicians. As a horde of White House hopefuls descends on their state, site of the first presidential balloting in February, most are far from deciding who measures up.
Voters at the Iowa State Fair, a magnet for candidates, said in interviews that they’re used to Washington gridlock and chaos. They’ve also become used to seeing promises broken, presidents and lesser officeholders fail, debts remain unpaid and wars drag on without end.
Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders have channeled that frustration to become top-tier contenders, and their enthusiastic crowds have largely defined the 2016 presidential campaign so far.
But those crowds don’t tell the full story. More obvious at the fair, which began last week and runs through Sunday, are legions of people who don’t attend rallies or run to see the nearest candidate or follow politics minute by minute. Many don’t have a favorite, nor is there a single issue driving this silent majority.
Moreover, even as several presidential aspirants lament an America in decline, children run around the midway emblazoned with colorful temporary tattoos; parents awkwardly maneuver their half-pound fried pork tenderloin sandwiches; and tables are loaded with prize onions, flowers and muffins.
On a sun-splashed August afternoon, in a state where the unemployment rate stands at just 3.7 percent, it’s hardly a portrait of a crumbling nation.
More than 187,000 people attended the state fair on its first two days last week. Attendance for the 11-day event usually tops 1 million.
If there is a single common current to the presidential thinking of some of the fair-goers, it’s a desire to find someone with the personality, skill and self-confidence to make the byzantine bureaucracy work. They’re confident they can correctly size up each of the hopefuls clamoring for their support and separate the pretenders from the genuine article.
Their concerns, like those of most people, depend largely on self-interest. Neal Garbes, a hog and grain farmer from New Hartford, surrounded by his family at the pig barn, mentioned education as the most compelling issue.
Fund it, improve it, make it more relevant, he said. “It all comes down to funding. Does that mean an outsider can get things rolling? Or someone who knows the system? I don’t know.”
No one person can do the job.
Neal Garbes, a New Hartford, Iowa, farmer, talking about the presidency
Others fretted about health care. They don’t like the Affordable Care Act, but they don’t share the congressional Republicans’ passion for yet another futile attempt at repeal. They’ve tried more than 50 times already. A waste of time, several fair-goers said, more with a sense of resignation than contempt for the system.
Brandi Daniels, a Des Moines insurance adjuster, explained how her deductibles have doubled in the past two years and her premiums have soared.
“It’s like Obamacare’s penalizing those of us who work for a living,” she said.
Sometimes that yen for better government takes on a more philosophical hue. Elizabeth Meyer, an Urbandale attorney, wanted the tax system altered so the wealthy pay a greater share.
“We’re upper middle class, but I didn’t grow up that way,” she said. “I have concern for people who don’t have what we do.”
Not everyone sees government as a villain, a common complaint among some of the candidates. Several fair-goers said it’s like the local grocery store or anyplace they frequent. It’s got its flaws, and sometimes things are rotten, but they can’t imagine life without it.
“I like that someone hauls my trash away, and regulated red and green traffic lights,” said Kyle Dickey, a brewery salesman from Des Moines. “I like public parks, and that 8-year-olds aren’t working for 50 cents an hour.”
The fair’s butter cow sculpture is frozen and stored during the year and reused three or four times. To sculpt the cow requires about 600 pounds of butter and 16 hours.
The candidates tour the fair with bulging entourages of cameras and reporters – who often block the view of the very people the politicians want to be seen among – and speak at the “soapbox” in the middle of it all. Get away from the hoopla, though, and few candidate stickers or signs are evident.
If there’s a deeper concern among these folks, it involves safety and security. People don’t bring it up often. National security problems are so vexing, complex and enormous that some say it’s downright scary to even discuss.
When voters do bring up the issue, they focus on specifics, like skepticism over the Iran nuclear deal, the state of the military and undocumented immigrants.
Bill Fell’s son is in the Air Force. “They keep calling on the military to do stuff, and then they want to cut more,” said Fell, an Avoca teacher.
Tim Pettus, a Des Moines insurance agent, surveyed the array of nearby activity and enticements: a cheese curd stand, a talent show just underway. “People put their lives on the line so we can do things like this,” he said. “Then they come home and (lawmakers) cut veterans’ funding.”
Some complained that the president caved in to Iran on the talks to slow its nuclear program and got nothing in return. Job Cooper, who owns a Des Moines heating and cooling business, worried that “we seem to be losing our greatest ally in the Middle East: Israel.”
None of this is said in anger. “I am optimistic the right leader can get us back on the right track,” Cooper said.
People said they want inspiration; someone authentic, with a set of beliefs that makes sense, but enough flexibility to make the system work. Someone who understands that getting things done “is a process,” said Jeremy Sales, a Des Moines call center manager.
“I have hope,” said Sales. “The American dream was built on hope.”