Iowa State Fair Dispatch Day 1: Volunteers’ advice for candidates

The Iowa State Fair will see 23 presidential hopefuls by the end of the next 11 days. Longtime fair volunteers give their advice for politicians moseying around the fair.

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Iowa State Fair Dispatch Day 1: Volunteers’ advice for candidates

Dana

Dana "Spanky" Wanken poses for a portrait in front of the Pork Tent on Thursday, August 8th, 2019. The Pork tent holds an annual tradition where the State Fair's celebrity guests flip a pork chop.

Tate Hildyard

Dana "Spanky" Wanken poses for a portrait in front of the Pork Tent on Thursday, August 8th, 2019. The Pork tent holds an annual tradition where the State Fair's celebrity guests flip a pork chop.

Tate Hildyard

Tate Hildyard

Dana "Spanky" Wanken poses for a portrait in front of the Pork Tent on Thursday, August 8th, 2019. The Pork tent holds an annual tradition where the State Fair's celebrity guests flip a pork chop.

Sarah Watson, Politics Editor

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The Iowa State Fair hosted Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Vice President Joe Biden, the first two of 23 candidates this year. That number tops 2016’s Des Moines Register Political Soapbox schedule, which listed 20 speakers.

On Aug. 10 alone, the stage will host nine candidates. With so many presidential hopefuls hitting the windy streets of the State Fair, longtime fair volunteers recall past politicians and give their advice for how candidates can stand out (or survive) the fair.

Chad Webb, an 18-year fair volunteer, said his biggest piece of advice for candidates was pretty basic — keep their states straight.

“Don’t confuse us with Idaho,” Webb said. “We had a couple back in 2016 kept calling it the great state of Idaho — which is a turn off. Know where you’re at, I guess.”

Webb, who said he’s registered as an independent, noted that in recent years, he’s found it’s more difficult to access presidential candidates while they’re roaming around.

“The candidates here have been swarmed with people, and you can’t even get close to them,” he said.

Tate Hildyard
People look over the Iowa State Fairgrounds on the sky lift on August 8.

After Biden’s speech, the former Delaware senator entered a crowded tent to answer questions from the press. As campaign staffers ushered him out, cameras, fairgoers and reporters alike followed the former vice president in a line that strung around the fair administration building.

Webb said he wanted to see Biden, but by the time he got to where Biden was speaking, he said he couldn’t get through to see him.

“I think in recent years my struggle in my memory if you don’t know where they are, especially if you’re handicapped,” he said, gesturing toward his motorized wheelchair. “I’d like for the candidates to be more accessible and freely walk the streets to have those conversations.”

According to the press office, 1,500 press credentials were printed to prepare for the entire State Fair.

At the Pork Producers’ tent, Dana “Spanky” Wanken has flipped pork chops for 27 years. Politicians often head to the pork grill, which is in full view of passersby and cameras.

The most memorable candidate, he said, was Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, in 2015.

“I cooked with Chris Christie one day, and I asked him if he knew how to cook these, and he looked at me, and was like, what do you think?” Wanken said. “He knew what he was doing.”

RELATED: Live coverage of presidential hopefuls at the Iowa State Fair

Wanken advised candidates to be genuine when they interacted with Iowans, though he said it’s difficult to deeply connect when candidates are there for a few minutes.

“We smile and act like we know them, even if we don’t know them that well,” he said and laughed. “Because we’re probably never going to see them again, but it’s a good deal to meet [the candidates] — I like to meet them.”

His biggest piece of practical advice to candidates was simply to keep their campaign staffers and themselves safe from the hot grill.

“You get too many people in here, it gets pretty hot, and it can be dangerous,” he said, gesturing toward the grill.

Glenda Hockridge, a vendor since 1987, sells popcorn, caramel apples, sliced apples, caramel corn, cotton candy, and snow cones.

She saw Jeb Bush, John McCain, and Barack Obama in different years, all three of whom she described as outgoing.

She said that while she enjoyed seeing and meeting the presidential candidates while they were here, she didn’t think the experience was incredibly productive for the candidates.

“Get to the rural areas, because that’s where the people are,” she said.

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