“Nothing Compares” says this year’s Iowa State Fair slogan. They had no idea how right they’d be. I’ve experienced a lot of crazy, surreal days in Iowa politics around caucus season, but yesterday’s madness at the State Fair definitely surpasses them all. Everywhere you went fair-goers were talking non-stop about the visiting candidates. Donald Trump flew in on his helicopter. Hillary Clinton walked the Fair, surrounded by a swarm of press and well-wishers. Like medieval banners heralding a king’s arrival, the lofted boom mics fair-goers first saw in the distance signaled a presidential candidate was coming near. However, while the two parties’ front-runners will likely dominate the weekend’s headlines, the real story story happened when Bernie Sanders took the Soapbox stage to a massive crowd.
The audience began to fill in two hours ahead of Sanders’ arrival at the Des Moines Register’s Soapbox. Sanders volunteers and staff fanned out across the Fair to encourage people to attend his speech. About 150 gathered at a gate entrance to welcome him in. By the time he was scheduled to speak, the crowd to see him had swelled to well over 1,500. The entire Midway was full of people, with hundreds standing all the way back by the Grandstand to watch.
It was impossible to get an even semi-accurate count of how many attended because you simply couldn’t see them all in one view. It’s entirely possible the crowd numbered as high as 3,000. This was a show of organizational strength by the Sanders campaign, which worked hard to turn out their supporters on a hot afternoon at the Fair. It was a moment similar to past Iowa Caucus demonstrations, like Barack Obama’s march into the 2007 Harkin Steakfry. Of course, not everyone there had heeded a phone call from the Sanders campaign. Many simply stopped to watch, and several came away with a new candidate to support. “I really like him, sorry Hillary,” I overheard one young woman say afterwards.
However, the crowd was so big I had difficulty getting anywhere close or in a good position for pictures. Sanders’ speech was no different than any of his usual stump speeches, and received just as many cheers and applause lines as it typically does. At one point a loud helicopter buzzed overhead as Sanders spoke (many thought it was Trump, but it was actually a different helicopter). “I apologize, I left the helicopter at home,” Sanders ad-libbed.
Most importantly, while Trump and Clinton attracted swarms of onlookers as they toured the Fairgrounds, those coming out to see Sanders seemed like they were there for his message, not the spectacle. The Sanders surge appears to be here to stay in Iowa.
Clinton began her day at the Fair holding a press conference with Tom Harkin, where he spoke about his recent endorsement of her. The presser was behind the cattle barn, and right by Bill and Susan Knapp’s RV they park inside the Fair every year. Clinton addressed the typical questions you’d expect about the email server and her campaign before setting out to make a Butter Cow pilgrimage and get a pork chop-on-a-stick.
Madness ensued, as everyone knew it would, as the horde of press surrounded Clinton while she walked down a dirt path. Fair-goers who wanted to meet her were snatched by campaign aides and pressed through the scrum. Clinton actually did have several good conversations with actual Iowans – well, as good of conversations as you can with 20 TV cameras pointed at you. On her first leg of the journey, Clinton stopped to speak with Bill Knapp and Jerry Crawford’s sister (Clinton asked how the horses were doing).
She also chatted with some family farmers, who then accompanied her throughout the Fair:
Clinton entered the Ag Building to see the Butter Cow and chaos ensued. Walking outside was bad enough with the press, crowds and Secret Service – inside the building things got very cramped, very fast. People lined the upper level and leaned over the railings to catch a glimpse of Clinton as she passed, and many cheered and chanted “Hillary!” Realizing she was making her way to the Butter Cow, I broke off from the pack and planted myself right in front of the sculpture (kind of surprised more press didn’t do the same). The plan worked out a little too well, however, as I ended up so close I was between Clinton and the Butter Cow. Still got this incredible photo, however, of Clinton and Harkin looking at it:
In one of the funniest Iowa Caucus moments I’ve ever seen, Donald Trump’s helicopter buzzed over Clinton and the attending press scrum, and then circled back around to do it again. “Trump!” everyone shouted and pointed to the sky. Essentially, this photo is your 2016 campaign in a nutshell:
Trump, as always, showed he’s the smartest in the game at attention-getting stunts. Everyone, and I mean everyone, I passed by at the Fair was talking about Trump and his helicopter. They pointed at and waved to it every time it flew overhead (he gave several lucky kids free rides). “I want to see who he insults next!” exclaimed one woman I walked by. The State Fair during Iowa Caucus season is always a spectacle, and Trump exploited the circus for all its worth.
“My crowd is ten times bigger than Hillary’s,” Trump bragged as he walked the Fair, and he was kind of right. The throng that surrounded him was thirty people deep on all sides. There was almost twice as many journalists around Trump as there was around Clinton. And everywhere he went people in watching distance stopped, stared and laughed about it all.
Like Clinton, Trump skipped the Soapbox (which was fine, it would have been insanity getting up there). I caught up with Trump as he was making his way to get a pork chop-on-a-stick. Again, as with Clinton, I staked out where he was headed and soon found myself face-to-face with The Donald. After he passed, however, I was nearly lifted off my feet by the crush of the swarm that followed him. The temperature immediately went up at least 10 degrees from the heat of such a packed crowd. So hopefully you enjoy this short video, because it was almost the last one Starting Line ever took (have I mentioned I have a Donate page? Now might be a good time to throw a few bucks in, because attending the State Fair each day is starting to get expensive).
After getting my video I got out as quick as I could before getting trampled, so I didn’t get a shot of him with the pork chop. But as you can see from this Tweet, he was pretty proud of it:
— Eli Stokols (@EliStokols) August 15, 2015
Rick Santorum and Lincoln Chafee
This was not the day to be a candidate at the Fair if your name did not end in Clinton, Sanders or Trump. Both Santorum and Chafee spoke at the Soapbox as the Clinton press conference and walk-through was getting underway. I got a shot of Santorum at the Pork Producers stand later on while on my way to see Trump, but I never ran into Chafee.
If you’re looking for my Wing Ding Dinner wrap-up, I finished it and it’s here now.
I’ll be back at the Fair for every day there’s a candidate there this coming week. If you don’t already, make sure to follow me on Twitter for tons of live updates from the Fair. If you can’t tell, I’m having fun.
Oh, and one last thing: I have known for some time now the way to win Twitter. Tweet out about how huge Bernie Sanders’ crowds are, get RT by the official Sanders account, and watch your Twitter get notifications for days and days:
— Iowa Starting Line (@IAStartingLine) August 15, 2015
by Pat Rynard