Which Candidates Deserved Ribbons at the Iowa State Fair?

DES MOINES—Sen. Tim Scott had his day at the Iowa State Fair on Tuesday, the latest in a string of Republican presidential hopefuls who came here to admire arts, crafts, flowers, heifers, and barbeque recipes – and take their measure of the full gaggle of candidates who want to be the GOP standard-bearer in 2024.

It’s a big group – Scott wasn’t even the only prominent South Carolinian to make the trek – and a handful of second-tier candidates were slated behind him. Businessman Perry Johnson, former Texas Rep. Will Hurd, and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson were slotted in behind him, awaiting their turn to grace the fairgrounds’ Grand Concourse.

Some of the Fair’s best livestock were evaluated as early as last weekend. So perhaps it’s time to award ribbons to the many candidates on display, too.


TIM SCOTT earned kudos for strategy. Although he’s running a distant third in the RealClearPolitics polling average in Iowa, Scott placed himself at the center of the state’s political universe Tuesday by choosing to arrive in Des Moines after other big names had already left town.

At the same venue where his South Carolina compatriot, Nikki Haley, made her familiar pitch days earlier, Scott became top billing. He received a personal tour of the fairgrounds from Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst and Rep. Zach Nunn, and spent the day flipping pork chops and grooming cattle while flanked by a cadre of press large enough to clog the North Barn’s “Boulevard of Dairy Breeds.”

Such is the power of a well-timed visit to the fair. When Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann spoke to RCP earlier in the week, he described the calendar as a valuable tool for a candidate in Scott’s position.

Choose the right day to arrive, he said, and “All of a sudden, this person that may not have been known, not even recognizable by 50% of the Iowa electorate, they have a bank of cameras, a bank of reporters, following them writing about them,” Kaufmann said. “They became the car whose tires we’re kicking on that day.”

Scott isn’t exactly an unknown entity in the Hawkeye State. His super PAC has poured its war chest onto the airwaves of early-primary states, with an additional $40 million ad buy committed earlier this month. So by now, any Iowan with a television has heard that the South Carolina senator’s biography “disproves the lies of the radical left.”

When Scott sat down with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Tuesday, though, he enjoyed a rare moment of undivided attention from many in the state who only knew the 57-year-old African American conservative as one of many 2024 sloganeers.

Todd Wiley, a farmer from Benton County, Iowa, came to the fair with his wife on Tuesday to support their children at a livestock exhibition. But he made time that morning to see Scott, whose trademark optimism and “grounding in Judeo-Christian principles” touted in 30-second TV spots had impressed him.

“We saw his advertisements early, and he talked about things we really value,” Wiley said. “We’re not very political people, but we do believe we need to move on from President Trump. And there wasn’t a thing [Scott] said today I wasn’t impressed by.”

Although a long way from Trump’s 44% perch, Scott has seen some recent momentum in Iowa polls. As he bounced between photo ops, he was frequently approached for selfies and cheered on by passersby.

“I think he does have a shot,” Angela Henick, a surgical tech from Mount Vernon, told RCP as she adjusted her “Scott for President” button. “He’s been spending a lot of time here, and people seemed very receptive to him this morning.”

He’ll spend even more time here, soon. Scott confirmed to reporters Tuesday that his campaign intends to visit all 99 Iowa counties before they caucus this winter – a high-commitment electoral gambit known locally as the “Full Grassley” after Iowa’s senior senator.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY did not enjoy the benefits of a quiet day at the fair, instead choosing to compete with bigger names (Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and Nikki Haley) for the largest crowds on Saturday. He still managed to leave his mark on the Des Moines fairgrounds. At the very least, the 38-year-old entrepreneur from Ohio deserves a mention as the candidate having the best time.

At a venue where Jeff Kaufmann days earlier recommended that candidates “dive into the crowd,” Ramaswamy came closer than anyone to taking that advice literally. During a sit-down with Kim Reynolds, he introduced the 64-year-old Iowa governor to the music of Eminem and closed out his time with an impromptu cover of the artist’s hit song, “Lose Yourself.”

Ramaswamy, whose fanboys call him simply “Vivek,” also joined voters for a rowdy happy hour at “Jalapeño Pete’s” and peppered his on-the-ground interviews with the kind of outsized confidence that wouldn’t be out of place at the UFC’s pre-fight pressers. There, a New York Times reporter was told that the odds of a Ramaswamy administration were “over 50%.” When asked during a press scrum who he’d face in a general election if not Joe Biden, he replied with a memorable zinger: “Another puppet.”

It wasn’t all fluff, though. Ramaswamy drew a sizable crowd with his turn at the Soapbox, and spent an outsized portion of his 20 minutes fielding audience questions in detail.

One question came from deep across the blacktop. A fair attendee named Clinton Smith arrived at the Soapbox looking for a specific plan to combat the “double standard” at the DOJ. He told RCP he was impressed with the response.

“I mean, finally! Someone with an actual plan,” said the recently retired military veteran from Badger, Iowa. “It was nice to get some details from a politician, instead of these same old talking points you hear night after night.”

A self-described “big Trump supporter,” Smith is “open to everybody” in the field, but wants a candidate ready to continue the former president’s fight against “the Deep State,” which he said “will go after them, too.”

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On stage with Gov. Reynolds, Ramaswamy acknowledged this impulse among Trump supporters, even praising the front-runner (“The most successful president in our century”) before discussing how he’d “go further” than Trump in fighting “the Swamp.”

Jane Schnyder, a physician from Des Moines, was spotted proudly wearing a Vivek-branded t-shirt while in line for a Lemonade Shakeup on Saturday. She was quick to inform RCP that she’d gotten a new Trump shirt that day, too.

Nonetheless, she felt the fight against the media and “three letter groups” would “definitely” be in good hands if Donald Trump’s indictments somehow remove him from play.

“I’ve heard [Ramaswamy] say ‘I want to go even farther.’ I think he deeply means what he says,” She said. “And he’s so good-natured. Did you see he raps?”

RON DESANTIS had arguably the most of any candidate riding on his appearance at the Iowa fair. Amid multiple campaign “reboots” and a protracted slide in the RCP national average, Florida’s popular governor is looking to Iowa to shake frontrunner Trump’s grip on the nomination. A strong showing at the fairgrounds has been a proven launchpad for underdogs past.

DeSantis arrived in Des Moines last Saturday with momentum – on the heels of a promising New York Times-Siena poll in Iowa – and secured an endorsement from influential state conservative Steve Deace that morning. He participated in a well-received sit-down with Kim Reynolds (once she put some hecklers to bed for him), and proceeded to check many of the boxes you’d associate with a successful outing to the fair. He flipped burgers with Iowa’s political elite, took selfies with supporters, and ran the gamut of classic fair photo-ops with his wife and children.

This was success – in a Trumpless vacuum. At the same time, the governor spent most of the day in the crosshairs of a multi-front trolling campaign orchestrated by the former president and his supporters.

During his shift at the Pork Tent’s iconic barbecue grill, DeSantis was encircled by a green-hatted division of MAGA faithful, who drowned out any opportunity for retail politics with chants of “We love Trump!” He spent much of the day tailed by fair-goers with signs boasting Trump’s dubious status as the “back-to-back Iowa champ.”

The air wasn’t safe, either. After he took to the stage for his Fair-Side chat with Reynolds, DeSantis was literally overshadowed by a flyover from Trump’s private jet. Another plane circled the fairgrounds with a banner reminding him: “Be likable, Ron!”

There were plenty of friendly faces at the fair as well, though. J.D. Mitchell of Boone, Iowa, spoke to RCP as DeSantis handed out eggs-on-a-stick to a widely receptive crowd at the fair’s agricultural building. Although he’d vote for Trump “If push comes to shove,” he believes DeSantis’s record made him the superior candidate.

“The way he’s standing up for parents’ rights resonates with me, and a lot of Iowans,” said Mitchell, who works in education. “And I’d certainly like to find somebody with a little stronger character.”

Also promising for DeSantis: Fair-goers like Mike Mayer, who maintained that Trump was “the one who could get it done,” but expressed some hesitation about his frequent attacks on fellow conservatives.

“I’d rather we didn’t spend our energy fighting amongst ourselves,” The EMT from northern Iowa said, adding that he held both Trump and DeSantis in high regard. “Make your case, sure, but why do they have to beat each other up?”

To his credit, the Florida governor managed to land a shot or two on MAGA nation, as well. If you saw that semi-viral video of Trump’s motorcade pulling into the fairground, you may have noticed a wall of bright red “DeSantis ’24” signs waiting for him at the front of the crowd.


DONALD TRUMP nonetheless came out on top, though, nearly shutting down the Grand Concourse with another entry in his history of unconventional State Fair outings.

While he stopped short of bringing his helicopter, as he did in 2015, the former president skipped both formal candidates’ events in favor of spontaneous drop-ins, the first of which was announced to his supporters only an hour in advance, via email.

A bold strategy, but it wasn’t without its hiccups. As the Secret Service assembled a checkpoint at the Animal Learning Center, ahead of Trump’s first scheduled appearance, a predictably massive line formed outside. Many, however, had no idea the former president was arriving and assumed everyone just wanted to see the baby farm animals.

“A lot of people were confused,” said Carolyn Mayer, who arrived early and was indeed there to see Trump. “They couldn’t figure out what the line was for, and just had their kids to see the animals. So, of course, they left.”

That isn’t to say Trump would have been unwelcome. Ryan Hall, a 45-year-old delivery driver from Garner, was simply at the fair with his family for the livestock. But he described himself as “all-in behind Trump,” and he headed to the rendezvous point as soon as he heard the former president would be there. And while RCP spoke with Vicky Scott of Des Moines about Trump’s odds of out-shining DeSantis, one woman interjected excitedly: “Trump’s here? No way!”

Word of Trump’s arrival got around fast enough, however, and by the time he did appear (not at the Animal Learning Center, but at the nearby Steer and Stein restaurant), a massive crowd was ready to receive him. It dwarfed anything else at the fair this weekend.

“It was incredible being there,” said Wanda Spiker, an Indianola woman who introduced herself as “the wife of a veteran” to RCP. “The moment he opened his mouth, he had everyone. Nothing is going to stop him here.”

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