Take a look inside the Iowa State Fair, a tradition in presidential politics. Kelsey Kremer, email@example.com
At first glance, the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox looks simple — quaint even.
A small black stage on a tiny patch of grass amid the unending asphalt of the Iowa State Fair’s Grand Concourse, the Soapbox is sparsely adorned with a backdrop and a few bales of straw.
The candidates — 23 running for president were scheduled this year — are so close that no bead of sweat goes unnoticed, no errant mustard stain from a wayward corndog unseen.
A lucky few dozen audience members can snag a folding chair, but the rest stand. There is no microphone in the crowd. Instead, speakers point to raised hands of audience members who yell out their inquiry.
But first impressions can be deceiving because making this look so simple took a heck of a lot of work.
Planning for this year’s Soapbox (as it is colloquially known) began in earnest during last year’s Soapbox — though one could dig out emails from the 2015 caucus-focused Soapbox laying the groundwork for what fairgoers are seeing now.
The first logistical meetings with State Fair leadership occurred when the temperature was below zero and the ground covered in snow. And, for at least the past month, details of this event have consumed Rachel Stassen-Berger, the Register’s politics editor, and Brian Smith, Soapbox logistical director and the paper’s audience growth strategist.
By the time the fair ends, more than 30 Register staffers and a handful more from across the USA TODAY Network will have played a role in covering or executing the Soapbox. Watching this well-oiled machine all in action — candidates moving on and off swiftly, fires being put out quickly — is like taking in a well-rehearsed Baryshnikov solo.
On Tuesday — after surviving Saturday, the busiest day in Soapbox history with nine scheduled candidates — the Register team was at it again, this time preparing for South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg to walk the boards.
Nearly 90 minutes before showtime, at least 40 fairgoers had staked out space on the lawn, ensuring they’d either get a chair or a spot by the straw. At 30 minutes until Buttigieg took the stage, the number grew into the hundreds.
While six Register staffers flitted about to answer voter questions or deal with media issues or generally keep the calm, the crowd kept growing.
Because, at the Soapbox, all anyone has to do to see the next leader of the free world is show up.
All the Soapbox coverage: Read about every speech and watch the replays
Blueberry, buckets of cookies and thumb wars
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s delay was ice cream-related (as in he needed a Wonder Bar). U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren showed up at the fair at the busiest time on the busiest day leading to a football field’s length walk taking more than 40 minutes. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who on Thursday dropped out of the race, had to wait while Slipknot — Saturday night’s Grandstand performance — sound-checked.
The first rule of the Soapbox is that you plan, you plan more, you create a spreadsheet of the plan and have meetings about the spreadsheet of the plan and then … you let go. After just one day at the Soapbox, you realize that the schedule, the candidates and even us Register employees are still at the whims of the fair.
Before his stop at the Soapbox, Buttigieg got a root beer float. Next on his list was a pork chop on a stick and a stop at the butter cow, one of his staffers told me.
“Oh, and, he’s really intrigued by these turkey legs,” the staffer added.
Meanwhile, Stassen-Berger briefed Buttigieg on the Soapbox process — and I mean brief-ed. Basically, she said, you get a microphone and 20 minutes to do what you want.
“I had one candidate ask me, ‘So could I tap dance?’” Stassen-Berger said. “Sure, it’s your 20 minutes! But when the same candidate asked me if he could set off pyrotechnics, that I had to say no to.”
When Biden made it backstage — ice cream in hand — Clare Ulmer, a Register summer intern from the University of Chicago, was the person designated to get him from stage to press gaggle.
“He said, ‘I’m following you, you tell me where to go,’” Ulmer said. “So for like 30 minutes I was in charge of the former vice president, which was pretty nerve-wracking but also very cool.”
Ulmer, who worked backstage for a lot of the Soapbox, also played entertainer to U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan’s young son. The two vied for thumb war supremacy as his dad outlined policy a few feet away, and when the youngster got hot, Ulmer suggested he press a cold water bottle to his skin.
“But he didn’t get it, and he just dumped the entire water bottle over his head,” Ulmer said. “I apologized to his mom about four times.”
For Smith, one of the favorite moments was U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s son toting a giant stuffed sloth he won earlier as his mom introduced him to the crowd. (Reports say the sloth was named Blueberry).
Or realizing as he was cleaning up that U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s family left behind a bucket of cookies. (Reporter can confirm this was later shared with Register staff.)
Another fun happening was when businessman Tom Steyer, who speaks often about environmental policy, eschewed the plastic water bottles we provide for candidates to seek out the water fountain, Stassen-Berger said.
“That kind of living his truth even when he’s hot, even when there’s a cold bottle of water in front of him, it just humanizes him,” she said, adding that she had a moment like that with every candidate that spoke this year.
“You become one of the people as you’re standing up there,” Stassen-Berger said. “You see the crowd. When Kamala Harris stood on the Soapbox stage, her first comment was, ‘Wooow!’ because there were just humans all around coming to listen to her.”
We asked both fairgoers and presidential candidates to name as many Democratic presidential candidates as they could in under a minute. Here’s how they did. Katie Akin and Clare Ulmer, Des Moines Register
How politics ought to be
Indeed, as Buttigieg took the stage, the crush of humanity around him was impressive. People were standing in front of the Soapbox, others spilled out onto the concourse and still others crowded around the concrete wall behind the stage.
In the shade after his speech — during which questions ranged from educational policy to advice for college students, which from him was that “dish soap and hand soap are the same thing” — Buttigieg said that the Soapbox is how “politics ought to be.”
“Real conversations with people with the issues on their minds …,” Buttigieg said. “It’s a great chance to look somebody in the eye and, in the course of telling them what we plan to do, make sure they understand what we care about, too.”
With that, Buttigieg hit on the magic of the Soapbox. At the end of the day, this isn’t about the Register or even the candidates — it’s about the people, Iowans or otherwise, who gather on hot August days to ask their question.
Pundits much more politically savvy than I have written gobs about the civic machinations of the fair and of the entire caucus process, but to me, the Soapbox might be the best example of why the Iowa circus is so special — and so important.
However candidates get to the Soapbox — some rushed, others with sloths and cookies in tow — once they are on it, they have the same shot to impress. No more CNN talking heads, no more 30-second debate answers, just a microphone and a stage to make a pitch.
As candidates turn to the digital battleground and make the decision to go national instead of focusing on early-voting states, we lose what could be the most important part of picking a president: that human to human interaction.
At the Soapbox, as with the caucuses, when Iowans gather with friends and neighbors in a basement or a church hall or a community center to decide which leader is best, there are no barriers to participation. You don’t have to pay to play. You don’t have to be a donor. And you don’t have to know anyone.
It’s grassroots — literally given the straw bales protruding from the bottom of the stage — and it’s not polished, and it’s personal, which if you ask me is what we need a little more of in politics these days.
As soon as Buttigieg finishes taking questions, the media scrum follows him to find that pork chop. Smith and Stassen-Berger run into each other before heading off to their respective destinations: him, picking up chairs and her, editing.
But first, they have a quick debrief on Candidate 22. They’ve already started a list of improvements for next year and Stassen-Berger’s newest addition is figuring out a way to get an accurate crowd count.
The calendar might say 2019, but, for these two, it’s already 2023 in Iowa.
Who gets to take the stage?
In creating the Soapbox guest list, the Register considers financing, political history, debate participation, and, most importantly, whether a given candidate is eligible for the caucuses. (So independents, who do not caucus in the state, need not apply.)
“This year it’s a lot of Democrats, but we did invite President Trump,” Rachel Stassen-Berger, the Register’s politics editor, said. He didn’t accept, “but we also had Bill Weld, a Republican, who wants to challenge the president in the caucuses.”
“There are some campaigns that the first time we have ever heard from them is when they asked to be on the Soapbox stage,” she said. “So we explain our criteria about who gets on and who doesn’t get on.”
A formal invite went out in June — all at the same time to ensure fairness — and the schedule was set on a first come, first served basis.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Buttigieg were the first to reply.
COURTNEY CROWDER, the Register’s Iowa Columnist, traverses the state’s 99 counties telling Iowans’ stories. Her fair food of choice is the Bauder’s Peppermint Bar. You can reach her at 515-284-8360 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.
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