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Why Is the Iowa State Fair So Important?

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The smell of fried Twinkies hangs in the air. Pork chops sizzle on the grill. The butter cow is cold, and the prizewinning pigs are snoozing.

Yes, it’s that very special time of year, again: the Iowa State Fair.

As for all good political reporters, this festival of agribusiness, everything-fried-on-a-stick and politics has been a quadrennial stop of mine for years now.

Eight years ago, I watched as a testy Mitt Romney told a heckler: “Corporations are people, my friend.” It was a remark immediately seized on by Democrats to paint the former Massachusetts governor as an out-of-touch corporate raider. And, perhaps, a harbinger of the gaffe-prone candidacy to come.

Four years ago, the then-candidate Donald J. Trump circled the fairgrounds in his helicopter as Hillary Clinton dutifully made her way through the fair, examining a Monopoly-themed sculpture made of butter and schlepping around a pork chop on a stick. Perhaps another harbinger of things to come.

But this year, amid the bacon-wrapped pig wings and corn stalker cocktails, I find myself wondering: Does how you eat your pork chop on a stick still matter?

Twenty-two candidates plan to speak at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox over the next four days. (Former Representative Beto O’Rourke canceled yesterday to stay in his grief-stricken hometown, El Paso.)

On Thursday, former Vice President Joe Biden made the rounds, making his way through the fair surrounded by a pack of sweaty and stumbling reporters. “Thanks for coming to Iowa, Joe,” shouted a passing fairgoer. “Go get ’em!” cheered another.

Despite Mr. Biden’s mixing and mingling at the fair, this remains a race that has been dominated by the national media environment.

Strong performances at the early town hall events hosted by Fox News and CNN boosted Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., into the top tier and filled campaign coffers for some of his rivals who also spoke at town halls in the spring. As in the Republican primary in 2016, the debates have driven coverage, giving boosts of momentum to Senator Kamala Harris of California and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Beyond those nationally televised events, little has broken through in a major way to voters — at least not in a way that has significantly shifted the polls away from Mr. Biden, whose support held statistically steady at 28 percent according to a new Monmouth University poll released by on Thursday morning.

The Democratic primary candidates have to spend this weekend at the fair: Skipping it entirely would be interpreted as a huge insult to those first primary voters. And Iowa certainly matters, a lot. A win — or a close second or third — in the first voting state catapults a candidate into the many contests that follow.

But the truth is that no matter how well you do at the fair, people care only if you mess up or literally fly into the event in a helicopter. Otherwise, it’s hard to make news, particularly at a time when the stock market is tumbling and the country is so on edge that the sound of a falling sign in a Salt Lake mall sent Americans running for cover. And with so many candidates, most are likely to be relegated to a photo slide show of politicians going down the big slide.

A major gaffe — like besmirching the sanctity of butter or somehow insulting corn — could haunt a candidacy. But a boffo performance? Hard to see it breaking through. Even in Iowa.


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@Team_Mitch was locked out of Twitter

Things have been tense on social media this week. Our colleague Matt Stevens sent us this:

Senator Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign remained locked out of its Twitter account on Thursday after posting a tweet that included a video of people making violent threats against the majority leader in front of his Louisville, Ky., home.

The Twitter lockout punctuates a turbulent week for Mr. McConnell’s campaign, which drew criticism after two separate episodes involving social media, and for Mr. McConnell himself. The majority leader is recovering from a fractured shoulder and is under pressure from lawmakers to bring up gun control legislation in the Senate in the wake of last weekend’s two mass shootings.

Critics of Mr. McConnell’s stance on gun control have pilloried him on Twitter using the hashtag #MassacreMitch.


What to read tonight

A new international report finds that climate change is threatening the ability of humanity to feed itself, threatening to disrupt and, over time, shrink the global food supply.

The Schoolteacher and the Genocide. A Rohingya teacher tries to keep his people’s history — and future — alive.

President Trump does something unusual: express regret. The Washington Post’s deep dive into the death of the president’s brother, Fred Jr., from alcoholism.


… Seriously

Once upon a time, I helped with the making of a turducken. So I feel qualified to say that this is truly next level.


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