There’s nothing quite like the Iowa State Fair during caucus campaign season. And this year’s circus was particularly intense, due largely to the Donald Trump/Ron DeSantis showdown on Saturday. Throughout the hot, sun-filled days, several key scenes revealed where the presidential field stands five months out from the GOP Iowa Caucus (spoiler: it’s still Trump’s party).
Your Starting Line team had seven staff members fanned out over the fairgrounds this past week. Here’s what we saw and what we think it means for the state of the Republican presidential primary.
Trump Phones in Speech, Doesn’t Matter
Donald Trump proved yet again on Saturday that he doesn’t even have to try to get thousands of people to hang on his every word, even if he barely utters a few cohesive sound bites.
Hundreds of people crowded inside Steer N’ Stein while hundreds if not thousands more waited outside the establishment located right in the heart of the Iowa State Fair grandstand, all in hopes of hearing or seeing the former president.
Trump finally arrived after an unscheduled stop at the Iowa Pork Producers that drew more than 1,000 spectators. Some people inside Steer N Stein watched the spectacle on their phones while awaiting his arrival.
After a few warm-up speeches from several Florida congressmen and former US Attorney General Matt Whitaker, Trump took the stage to raucous applause. From there, he absolutely phoned in a speech that relied more on him dropping his greatest hits—including the lie that he won the 2020 election—while letting his surrogates do the heavy lifting.
“So the other candidates came here and they had like six people,” Trump told the crowd before falsely claiming China paid $28 billion in tariffs that he used to pay farmers. The Trump administration did pay farmers; however, it wasn’t China funding the checks.
Trump then said Iowa’s been good to him, thanked the crowd for being there, and then introduced “some very special people, some of the most important congresspeople, that came up from Washington, DC.”
He then alternated between introducing his guests one by one—some of whom had already spoken to the crowd—and then letting them brag about his record for him before interjecting with his own remarks.
Trump did this for about 15 minutes before delivering his closing remarks.
“They’re very bad. They’re very bad. They are destroying our country. Stay strong, we are going to win big and we’re going to make it great again. Thank you very much,” he said.
After the final line, the crowd gave him a standing ovation and broke into “TRUMP, TRUMP, TRUMP” cheers.
Trump Swamps DeSantis With Excitement, Attention
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis can draw a crowd, but Trump attracts an army.
Dozens of fairgoers and reporters rushed to meet DeSantis on the edge of the fairgrounds on Saturday morning, where they flanked him and his family for much of the day.
Less than an hour after Trump’s team announced they were flying into Des Moines, his blue jet could be seen whizzing through the sky above the fair—and DeSantis—at about 11:30 a.m. Dozens of fairgoers were seen stopping in their tracks, and pointing their phones upward to the horizon.
From the moment Trump stepped foot onto the concourse on Saturday afternoon, there was never a question about where he was headed—even during his unscheduled stops, where an ever-present sea of red hats and campaign signs painted the concourse behind his every move. A crowd nearly 100 people deep in all directions surrounded the pork tent when Trump arrived there, even though they could only glimpse an occasional glimpse of his hair.
DeSantis garnered some attention as he walked around the fair, but the excitement and interest that Trump drew was on an entirely different level.
DeSantis Goes Traditional State Fair Route, Highlights Family
Ron DeSantis stuck to the traditional candidate script for a fun Iowa State Fair trip by highlighting his family. After working the grill at the Pork Producers, DeSantis showed off his wife and three children in Thrillville, the colorful carnival area of the fair.
There, the family did bumper cars, the three children played a number of games and rode the Ferris wheel, accompanied by Sen. Joni Ernst. While walking, DeSantis carried one of his daughters on his shoulders, even while going to see the butter cow in the agriculture building. While he walked, DeSantis was followed by a decent-sized crowd, though it was comprised of more reporters than supporters.
It all got DeSantis and his campaign exactly what they wanted: nice photos of him and his young family having fun together. It’s a clear and important contrast that DeSantis wants with Trump, who has seen his family completely absent for his 2024 campaign after their four turbulent years in the White House. As DeSantis seeks to make inroads into Iowa’s evangelical community, those visuals are important.
And photos and videos on the news can end up getting seen by far more Republican primary voters across the country than the number of people attending the fair that day. Still, wouldn’t you rather have thousands of adoring Iowans swarming you than some good TV news clips?
A Reinvigorated Mike Pence, But Too Little, Too Late?
While no gallows were present at the Iowa State Fair, there were a large number of Jan. 6 defenders in attendance, all too eager to give former Vice President Mike Pence a piece of their mind. Some Trump campaign volunteers even questioned his faith.
Some Trump supporters heckle Mike Pence as he arrives to a radio interview at the State Fair. “Pence is a traitor!” one yells. Appears like they were waiting for him. pic.twitter.com/0SDwI7d9d5
— Iowa Starting Line (@IAStartingLine) August 10, 2023
During the rehearsed potion of his Soapbox speech, Pence was calm, conversational and pretty boring—a stark contrast to some of the more bombastic speakers, like Vivek Ramaswamy and Francis Suarez. It wasn’t until he was challenged for his role in the January 6 insurrection that Pence seemed to come to life.
“Why did you commit treason on January 6?” a member of the crowd shouted out (the man turned out to be a Democrat from Colorado, but Pence has been dogged by the same question from actual MAGA supporters on the trail).
“People deserve to know that on that day, the former president asked me to choose him over my oath to the Constitution,” Pence responded, conviction in his voice. “I chose the Constitution, and I always will … There’s almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could pick the American president.”
While walking throughout the fair, many approached the former vice president and thanked him for standing up to Trump on Jan. 6, and told him that action had secured their vote for him—or at least their respect.
But his defiance of Trump met its threshold the previous week, as Pence promised to support whoever the Republican nominee for US president is—even if it’s his former running mate.
Pence’s newfound self-confidence gave him more energy, but it seems like too little, too late—and perhaps still not far enough.
The “Cool” Candidate
At age 38, Vivek Ramaswamy is the youngest candidate running for president—and he won’t let you forget it.
Instead of answering questions from fairgoers, he spent most of his time taking selfies, and—when asked by Gov. Reynolds what his favorite walk-out song was, instead of simply telling her it was Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” he stood up and dropped bars.
“I am 38 years old. I am the youngest person to ever run for US president in a major party,” Ramaswamy incorrectly claimed. “And I love seeing young people here. Here’s the thing about us—I think it’s true of all of us—we are hungry for a cause. We are starved for purpose, and meaning, and identity.”
Ramaswamy is polling high at the moment—second in some—and he gathered more attention from Iowans on Saturday by being personable and accessible.
Throughout his fair visit, Ramaswamy attempted to use language and issues that appeal to youth voters—with a conservative twist (never mind that he’s proposed raising the voting age to 25).
Yet, time and again, his pitch simply repackaged various right-wing ideas familiar to Fox News’ older audience.
He spoke of revolution, but explained that that meant shutting down the FBI as a means to end investigations into former President Donald Trump. He quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., but misattributed Dr. King’s words as justification for ending affirmative action.
When he was questioned about climate change—a topic of importance to young voters, liberal and conservative alike—Ramaswamy attempted to emphasize the importance of addressing it, while simultaneously minimizing its impact.
“The reality is, are global surfaces going up by a little bit? Yes, they are,” Ramaswamy said. “Is that attributable to some man-made causes? There’s reasonable debate, but, arguments to suggest that it is. Is that an existential risk to humanity? It is absolutely not.”
But nearly every expert and scientist versed on the subject of climate change is in disagreement with Ramaswamy’s claim, and when challenged with this information, the second-youngest candidate for US president grew agitated and dug his heels in.
“Under my administration, we will drill more, we will frack more, we will burn more coal, we will use ethanol, we will use nuclear energy, without apologizing for who we are as Americans,” Ramaswamy said.
Tim Scott Brings Friendly, Retail Politics Approach To The Fair
As Tim Scott walked past a barbecue contest at the Iowa State Fair on Tuesday, a small child came up to him and said, “I want you to be president.”
It was that kind of day for the South Carolina senator seeking the 2024 GOP presidential nomination and who some polls have as high as third in the Iowa Caucus, trailing only to Trump and DeSantis.
This kid just walked up to Tim Scott and told him "I want you to be president." pic.twitter.com/eOZIbp0yqb
— Iowa Starting Line (@IAStartingLine) August 15, 2023
Scott was the only candidate polling above 10% at the fair on Tuesday, so he did not have to compete for attention like other candidates who were there on Saturday only to be overshadowed by Trump’s brief but noteworthy appearance.
Scott also might be the best at retail politics of all the presidential hopefuls trying to sell themselves to potential supporters. Everywhere Scott went, he made small talk, no hand went unshaken and no photo request went unreturned, and none of it seemed forced. In fact, he seemed to actually relish each interaction.
Although he opted to skip the Des Moines Register’s Soapbox—DeSantis and Trump also passed—Scott sat down with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds for a “Fair-Side” chat where he again relied on the personal touch and faith to connect with people.
However, during that conversation, Scott also proved he wasn’t above a little pandering either as evidenced by when Reynolds asked him what his favorite fair food was.
“I’m a South Carolinian, a southern boy, I know barbecue and I know ribs—no one tell anybody this, OK—but I just had the most amazing ribs I might have ever had,” Scott said referring to a rib he tried at the barbecue contest.
“Only at the Iowa State Fair,” Reynolds chimed in.
Only at the Iowa State Fair, indeed.
Nikki Haley: Don’t Misunderestimate Her
Former US ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley drew a decent-sized crowd for her Fair-Side Chat with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, even early on Saturday morning.
She wore a “Underestimate Me, That’ll Be Fun” t-shirt, and spent much of her time with her Iowa Republican friends.
— Joni Ernst (@joniernst) August 12, 2023
Haley reiterated her line about mandated “mental competency tests for anyone over the age of 75,” which drew cheers from the crowd. But, seemingly mindful of longtime US Sen. Chuck Grassley’s popularity in Iowa (Grassley is 89), Haley quickly added, “And, let me tell you, Senator Grassley would pass that in a heartbeat.”
“That man is not slowing down one inch—I was trying to keep up with him all day,” Reynolds added, noting she and Grassley walked around the State Fair on Friday.
“But, you know, why wouldn’t we want them to take it?” Haley dug in.
Haley first mentioned mental competency tests at the Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines last month, just days after Sen. Mitch McConnell had stopped speaking for 30 seconds in the middle of a speech.
Haley also said she thought she may have been “one of the only candidates flying commercial—the rest of them are flying private.” (Both former Vice President Mike Pence and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said they fly commercial as well, and Sen. Tim Scott has been seen boarding commercial flights.)
Minor Candidates Try To Shine, But Polish Comes Off Quickly
When Kathryn Burgum spoke to a crowd about her husband, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, and his plans to run the country, she was energetic, charismatic, and heartfelt. All important traits for a presidential candidate, and, unfortunately for Gov. Burgum, not traits that he appears to possess.
Burgum, a software-investing billionaire who gave his campaign an artificial boost by handing out gift cards to anyone that would donate, as first reported by political campaign newsletter FWIW, drew modest crowds at events both on and off the fairgrounds. About 40 came to hear him speak at a free barbecue in the Des Moines suburb of Waukee.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, speaking from the Register’s Soapbox, was confident as he laid out his plan to win the presidency. It centered around attracting four voting blocs that have been drawn to Democratic candidates in recent years: Latinos, urban residents, Millennials, and Gen Z.
“If you want to find a candidate that can win young voters, urban voters, Hispanic voters, there isn’t a better candidate available,” Suarez said. “Period. Full stop.”
But in conversations with fair-goers, Suarez struggled to relate with his party’s voter base. When an attendee of one of his events asked him for specifics on how he would cut taxes, she was shocked with his answer.
“Let me tell you what we did in Miami: We did tiered salary cuts—we cut salaries,” Suarez began. “We cut salaries, it was tough. And then we cut pensions,” he finished proudly.
The response from the person he spoke with, a woman from the Boomer generation—half of which who have no retirement savings—upon hearing Suarez’s tax reduction plan included taking away peoples’ retirement savings, was simple.
“We cut salaries — and then we cut pensions.”
— Camaron (@thisiscamaron) August 11, 2023
Conservative radio host Larry Elder kicked off his discussion with Reynolds with the bold assertion that he nearly won the governor’s race in the recall election against California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“I carried every single county in the state,” Elder said. “And I had more votes than every other candidate [running against Newsom]—combined.”
But what Elder failed to mention is that he received less than half as many votes as Newsom, and roughly one million fewer votes than the Republican candidate who ran against Newsom in 2022.
Elder was quick to mention, however, that he needed more contributions to his campaign in order to qualify as a candidate for the first Republican primary debate. In order to qualify, candidates must receive a minimum of donations from 40,000 different people.
It seems to be what his candidacy is focused on—multiple times he mentioned he simply hoped he will shape the conversation in the field. When Reynolds gave Elder five minutes to give a closing pitch, Elder took just 45 seconds and finished his time on stage.
Is Reynolds/DeSantis Buddy Routine Setting Up Trump/Iowa Establishment Showdown?
Are Reynolds and DeSantis best friends? The two governors talked about all things campaigning, family life, and state legislation during Reynolds’s fair-side chats on Saturday.
“We’ve reduced government in Florida since I’ve been there, but [it’s] pretty impressive what Kim has been able to do in Iowa,” DeSantis said. “That’s why I tell people, when they see all the good stuff Iowa is doing sometimes they’ll say ‘Iowa is the Florida of the North,’ but then I see all the stuff they’ve done and I think to myself maybe Florida is the Iowa of the South.’”
DeSantis compared Florida and Iowa’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and rising rates of inflation, claiming he would handle budgets and debts similarly as president.
“Gov. Reynolds balances her budget, we balance our budget in Florida, and we saw big budget surpluses this year,” DeSantis said.
“So did Iowa!” added Reynolds.
DeSantis and Reynolds also share similar beliefs when it comes to education. They both support school choice vouchers to fund private school education for some students., both Florida and Iowa have passed legislation making it easier to ban books from school classrooms and libraries, and both governors have passed “Don’t Say Gay” bills into law.
At the end of the event, DeSantis and Reynolds shared a full circle moment: DeSantis gifted Reynolds a mug that reads “No Excuses, Get Shit Done,” months after Reynolds gifted DeSantis a similar one.
It’s not really a secret anymore that Trump and Reynolds’ teams have developed a strained, chilly relationship behind the scenes—a cold war of sorts that occasionally breaks out into hot, public disputes.
“I won the race for the Governor,” Trump bragged of Reynolds’ 2018 election to press at the Fair, one of many unsubtle shots taken between Trump himself and Reynolds backers in recent months.
The story moving forward in the Iowa Caucus seems to be one of the Iowa Republican establishment versus Trump, with the same GOP leaders who so often enabled him now trying to stop his continued dominance of what they see as “their” party.
But will Reynolds and other top Iowa Republicans make their behind-the-scenes support of DeSantis even more official with endorsements? Or like nearly every Republican before them, will they chicken out on confronting Trump?
by Nikoel Hytrek, Grace Katzer, Kyle Kaminski, Amie Rivers, Ty Rushing, Pat Rynard and Cam Stevenson
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