For two weeks every August, the Iowa State Fair becomes the center of the regional universe. It’s unlike other state and county fairs I’ve attended out West: It’s cleaner and less dusty, and there are paved streets. Some senior citizens zoom by on scooters; other people hitch a ride on cabooses towed by John Deere tractors. And then there are the political candidates, wandering around, making a show of relatable fair-food eating, glad-handing, and introducing themselves to everyone, because everyone could potentially sway their local caucus, the traditional manner in which the state helps determine the trajectory of the presidential election to come.
Walking the main thoroughfare, 52-year-old Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana, gets stopped by a woman asking to take a selfie. She didn’t know who he was — she just knew he was running for political office. “You can tell by the clothes,” she said. On that day: a blue oxford, Levi’s jeans, a Montana summer tan, and the kind of cowboy boots that signal Bullock as someone who doesn’t live — and who has, in truth, only briefly lived — anywhere with a population of more than 30,000 people.
“Iowa is kind of like doing the stations of the cross,” Bullock joked at one point in the three days he dutifully spent going through them. At the state fair, he ate pork belly on a stick. He ate a hard-boiled egg on a stick. He ate a pork chop not on a stick, and talked with the guy who sold it to him about bilateral agreements and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He went on the Ferris wheel and took photos and wondered, “Can I still Snapchat this, even if I’ve already taken it?” He exclaimed, “Did you know that 31 piglets were born here last night? The vet just told me!”
He drank a local IPA on draft at the Triple-A ballpark in Des Moines, and a Coors in a bottle on a farm out in Altoona. He showed up at a dozen events over three tightly packed days; he sat for interviews with the local press and made pitches to big-name donors.