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Visitors at the Mississippi Valley Fair in Davenport, Iowa. Photo: Lars Gesing/CU News Corps

Visitors at the Mississippi Valley Fair in Davenport, Iowa. Photo: Lars Gesing/CU News Corps

Visitors at the Mississippi Valley Fair in Davenport, Iowa. Photo: Lars Gesing/CU News Corps

State afFairs

The political magnitude of fried Snickers and fair-y insouciance

August 15, 2015

Logo final_highMILWAUKEE, Wisconsin – Oh, the joys of fried butter and the chance to “meet a calf.” There is hardly a presidential candidate this weekend who will not be photographed mingling and munching at a fair.

The folksy lineup of Ferris wheels, stuff-on-a-stick and 50 shades of country is a candy store of imagery for any campaign operative vying to have their candidate come across as a (wo)man of the people.

Take Jeb! Bush, who stuffed his face with a fried Snickers bar at the Iowa State Fair the other day. Or The Donald, who in a media advisory gave the political press corps a cordial heads up that he was going to go “see the butter cow.”

“The candidates are missing a big vote if they don’t come,” said Bob Fox, who manages the Mississippi Valley Fair in Iowa, the state’s second-largest such happening. “We are running a city here. We can show them to the public.”

In 2008 and 2012, President Obama came to visit. This year, no member of the presidential contender cadre made the trip to Davenport. But they weren’t going to miss out on the Iowa state fair, a fixture in the early stages of each presidential election cycle and the pinnacle of campaign corniness.

“Every candidate has to go,” said Jessie Opoien, a political reporter for the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, and a graduate of Iowa State University. “It really drives home that Iowa thing of, ‘We want to ask questions of our candidates, and we want to talk to them, put them on the spot and shake their hands three times before we get to the caucus.’”

This weekend, Opoien hops the border to return to the Hawkeye State to see how Wisconsin governor and Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker fares amid the fair-y bliss of the first-in-the-nation caucus voters.

Walker strolls into Iowa with a bit of an edge over many of his colleagues on the campaign trail. After all, he comes fresh off multiple go-arounds at his own state’s prime fair.

The governor actually flew into Cleveland, Ohio, for the first Republican primary debate on Aug. 6 only after he had opened the Wisconsin State Fair that same morning. This week, Walker returned to the fairgrounds in West Allis, just outside of Milwaukee, to sign a bill granting the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks $250 million in public money to build a new arena after the team had threatened to take the basketball team elsewhere if the governor wouldn’t support its plans for a new home.

It’s those situations where the happy-go-lucky fair atmosphere can become deceiving, even treacherous, for campaigns.

During the candidates’ 20-minutes-each addresses from the fabled Des Moines Register Soap Box at the Iowa State Fair, libertine hecklers have interrupted many a verbiage extolling a better tomorrow. Remember Mitt Romney’s impromptu lecture, “Corporations are people, my friend”?

Walker’s bill signing at the Wisconsin State Fair Wednesday caused a more subtle headshaking for many, but a substantial one nonetheless. Even plenty of the embattled governor’s supporters vented their anger.

Wisconsin GOP intern Conor Quick talks to visitors at the state fair in West Allis. Lars Gesing/CU News Corps

Wisconsin GOP intern Conor Quick talks to visitors at the state fair in West Allis, Wisc. Lars Gesing/CU News Corps

“They are upset with Walker about how the arena is being funded by tax payers,” said Conor Quick, an intern with the Wisconsin GOP and one of three volunteers who manned the party’s fair booth Wednesday afternoon. “They want an explanation.”

Such reactions can pose a problem not just for the Walker campaign but for the state GOP as well. While candidates seek the guy-next-door connection with voters, party organizations look at fairgoers as a barrage of potential recruits. Any chink in the temporary deep-fried jauntiness of the people here can be a blow to the ultimate depth of the new grassroots cadet roster when crunch time rolls around next year.

Both parties commit significant (human) resources to their fair presences. Quick said the Milwaukee GOP alone sent 75 volunteers to fill roughly 90 shifts over 11 days – and the effort usually pays off.

“A lot of people don’t actively seek out the opportunity to sign up – here, they just come by,” Quick said. “It’s a great place to find new volunteers.”

Just a few aisles over, at the Milwaukee County Democrats’ table, it’s the same numbers game. But they, too, are dealing with plenty of political animosity.

“I got a few one-finger salutes from people going by,” Marlene Ott, the county chairwoman, said, laughing. Her compadre, Robert Hansen, the coordinator of the Wisconsin Progressive Democrats of America who signed up 16 new members in just one shift, chimes in.

“It’s just their affectionate way of saying hello.”

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