DES MOINES, IOWA The Iowa State Fair has been a tradition since 1854, and it seems that for nearly as long politicians have used it as a backdrop to meet voters and stage photos in front of attractions like the butter cow and pork chop tent.
Candidates flock to Iowa because of the state’s status as holding the first electoral contest in the country, the Iowa caucuses. This year, the fair has hosted 22 candidates, including Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump on August 15 alone.
“Participation at the Iowa State Fair is one of the best ways to get lots of exposure and not spend money on commercials,” says Iowa State Fair C.E.O. Gary Slater. “It fits together in their favor, and we have a great state fair.”
During Slater’s 15-year tenure, the fair has hosted two sitting presidents (George W. Bush and Barack Obama) along with numerous candidates. The challenge Slater faces every four years is to walk a line between accommodating the candidates and minimizing the disruption to fairgoers.
The fair’s partnership with the Des Moines Register newspaper, a fair sponsor, is crucial to managing the candidates, Slater says. The Register sets up a venue called the Political Soapbox stage—complete with hay-bale seating—where candidates can address crowds. Then they can take in the sights at the fair, touring exhibits, snapping selfies, and sampling classic fair foods, all while being trailed by hordes of media. Sometimes their routes are coordinated with Slater’s team, while other times they are not.
“Most of the time we’re telling them what they can’t do rather than what they can do,” Slater says of the campaigns. “They want to get up on our stage or they want to cordon off areas, and we’re telling them no. People come to the Iowa State Fair to participate in the Iowa State Fair. If you’re there, that’s great, but our customers don’t necessarily want you changing the programming of the Iowa State Fair. And nor do we. We spend all year planning and we don’t want you directing people away.”
This year, fair organizers denied a request by Trump’s campaign for the candidate to land his helicopter on the fairgrounds and give rides to fairgoers while he toured the grounds.
“In concept that sounds great, but if you’ve been to the grounds, we don’t have a square foot that’s not taken up by something,” Slater says, noting it would have required displacing about 400 cars from a packed parking lot. “We couldn’t afford the space. It had nothing to do with Mr. Trump himself.”
So Slater’s team suggested the campaign find someplace nearby to land and then drive in. The campaign did, and Trump made his visit—and kept his promise to give children rides in the helicopter. That day, the Iowa State Fair held the top spot in Twitter’s trending list, and ABC and Fox News featured live coverage from the fair.
To keep event security running smoothly, the fair’s public safety director works with law enforcement from the Des Moines Police Department, Polk County Sheriff’s Department, the Secret Service, as well as private security details for the candidates. Having a plan in place helps deal with surprise visits, like when President Obama made an unexpected appearance at the fair in 2012. Slater got word just two hours before Air Force One touched down. An advance team from the Secret Service cleared the area where the president would visit, set up a perimeter, and then had everyone go through security before re-entering the area.
Slater offers advice for anyone dealing with high-profile guests to an established event.
“Be flexible,” he says, “but also make sure you stand your ground and don’t compromise the product that you’re giving your fairgoers at the expense of doing something that the candidates think has to be done.”