Iowa State Fair Cancellation Silences Forum for Candidates Hoping to Connect With Voters

June 16, 2020 by Sara Wilkerson
(Photo courtesy the Iowa State Fair)

The cancellation of the 2020 Iowa State Fair due to ongoing concerns over the spread of the coronavirus isn’t just a blow to those who love carnival rides, live music, fried Twinkies and an almost unimaginable array of food items on a stick.

It also removes from the political scene an event that traditionally marks the start of the fall campaign season.

Last year, 22 presidential hopefuls, both Democratic and Republican, turned up at the fair to climb atop the Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox and engage in real political discussions with voters from Iowa and other Midwestern states.

Indeed, like state fairs themselves, the soapbox is a tradition harkening back to a nearly bygone era — a time when candidates were afforded mere minutes and a microphone to explain and defend their policy positions, face-to-face, before a live audience.

The cancellation of this year’s installment of the fair came after an 11-2 vote by the members of the Iowa State Fair Board. The decision marked only the fifth such one in the fair’s 165 year history — the last being during World War II.

Greg Edwards of Catch Des Moines, the metro’s tourism bureau, has estimated the closure will cost central Iowa at least $110 million in revenue generated by the fair including money spent at local hotels, retailers and tourist attractions because of it.

In a press conference explaining the Iowa State Fair Board’s decision for cancellation, Iowa State Fair CEO Gary Slater said, “While the decision of the Iowa State Fair Board will certainly come as a disappointment to many, the board determined that holding a fair in accordance with current health guidelines related to COVID-19 wasn’t feasible.” 

Grassley, Axne Lament Lost Fair

Among the fairgoers who expressed their disappointment were state officials like Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who said that attending the Iowa State Fair is a tradition in his family and not only that but, “It’s an Iowa tradition.” 

In her response to the cancellation, Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, stated via Twitter that, “While I am saddened that Iowa won’t get the chance to show off one of its greatest attractions this year, I appreciate the state fair board for sending a clear message that caution is still crucial with the risks of #COVID19 still present in Iowa.” 

The board considered continuing the fair as planned but with increased health and safety measures such as sanitation stations placed throughout the fair and placing social distancing line markers for restrooms, food vendors and rides. Ultimately, however, the board made its decision not just for public safety, but also to maintain the integrity of the Iowa State Fair’s valuable traditions. 

“We tried every which way in the world to put together a plan that kept people safe and that also completed the mission of the Iowa State Fair,” Slater said. But, “it became a challenge to have a fair that we could all enjoy and be proud of.” 

According to the Iowa State Fair website, their mission is to, “celebrate Iowa’s agricultural heritage by providing a quality environment and facilities to further education and to offer entertainment and competition for all ages. [The Iowa State Fair] offer[s] opportunities for individual growth for all involved.” 

Platform Lost Just As In-Person Campaigning Resumes

The loss of the Iowa State Fair as a potential political venue comes just as President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden are resuming in-person appearances after months of virtual campaigning.

Of course, the up-close-and-personal nature of the fair can be both a blessing and a curse. In 2012, Mitt Romney got in a heated back and forth with a heckler that culminated in his saying, “corporations are people, my friend.”

The remark was immediately seized on by Democrats to paint the former Massachusetts governor as an out-of-touch corporate raider.

On the other hand, newly-minted presidential candidate Donald Trump used the 2015 edition of the fair to burnish his reputation as a successful billionaire. He flew to Iowa from a rally in New Hampshire, and spent much of a Saturday giving children rides in his private black helicopter.

During the same stop he famously declared he’d spend $1 billion on his 2016 campaign if he had to, adding “Nobody else would do the job that I will do.”

Could this year’s fair have been a game changer?

From the vantage point of simple logistics, the answer is no. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have rescheduled their presidential nominating conventions for August due to the coronavirus pandemic, which would have made candidate appearances at the fair difficult to say the least.

However, Iowa has suddenly emerged as a battleground state, according to a new Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll.

Trump carried Iowa by nine percentage points in his 2016 contest against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

But as of Tuesday, the Register’s Iowa Poll shows the president leading former Vice President Joe Biden by just one point — 44% to 43%.

The results — which come in the midst of a pandemic and widespread civil unrest — are among a wave of polls that indicate an increasingly unstable electoral map for the president.

States like Iowa that were expected to be safe territory for him after clear wins in 2016 now appear to be battlegrounds in 2020.

“I think it’s obviously nothing that Joe Biden should take for granted, because he’s not leading,” said pollster J. Ann Selzer in the Des Moines Register’s announcement of the poll results.

“But if the election were held today, Biden has a far better shot than anybody thought,” Selzer said.

The poll found that both Biden and Trump are on shaky ground when it comes to their favorability ratings, with more Iowans viewing them unfavorably than viewing them favorably.

For Biden, 45% of Iowans view him favorably and 50% view him unfavorably. For Trump, the same portion, 45%, have a favorable view, while 52% have an unfavorable view.

However, poll respondents were more likely to say they have a “very unfavorable” view of the president. Forty-three percent say their views of Trump are “very unfavorable,” including 87% of Democrats and 42% of independents.

Thirty-two percent of Iowans say they have a “very unfavorable” view of Biden. That includes 66% of Republicans and 30% of independents.

Selzer told the Des Moines that dynamic was critical in 2016, when voters regularly said they disliked both candidates and ultimately chose between what many described as the “lesser of two evils.”

However, she suggested there may be a significant difference this time.

“There’s a stronger revulsion to Trump among the Democrats than there is toward Biden by the Republicans,” she told the newspaper.

The poll of 674 likely voters was conducted June 7-10 by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines. Its margin of error is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points. The Iowa State Fair is expected to resume next year.

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