Forget polls. What will Democrats eat and what policies will they tout at the Iowa State Fair?

Except for vegan Cory Booker and vegetarian Tulsi Gabbard, any presidential hopeful courting Iowa voters is likely to eat a pork chop on a stick, like Hillary Clinton did in 2015.

For presidential hopefuls, the food stands at the Iowa State Fair are as obligatory a campaign stop as making a speech at the Des Moines Register Soap Box. What candidates eat could count as much as the policies. Speeches are fine, but what really gets a candidate’s mug on TV are shots of them chowing down on a pork chop on a stick.

Some Democrats skipped the 2018 fair while other hopefuls attended. But at this year’s fair, Aug. 8-18, we can expect all candidates to be checking out some of the more than 80 tasty treats (besides pork chops) at the fair’s 200 food stands, including chocolate-covered chunky bacon maple nougat on a stick, bacon-wrapped pig wings, and pickle beer (I am not making that up). In between bites, they will make their Soap Box speeches (20 candidates are scheduled to make 20-minute talks, which will be livestreamed). While all will discuss several topics, given the audience, many will describe how their proposals will help farmers and people in rural areas. Then they’ll chomp on their snacks on a stick, combined with a visit to the fair’s famous life-sized Butter Cow.

The Des Moines Register polled fair-goers in 2018 to pick their favorite state fair foods. The story with the results included photos of many would-be presidents chomping on various food offerings: Mike Pence eating a hot beef sundae and Mitt Romney joining Chuck Grassley flipping pork chops on a grill, both adorned in jaunty red monogrammed aprons. The winners as chosen by Iowans (the foods, not the caucus winners):

  1. Corn dogs. They’re so popular that in 2008, during an event called the Corn Dog Chomp, fair-goers set a world record of 8,400 for the number of people simultaneously eating corn dogs.
  2. Pork chops on a stick, widely popular with politicians and sponsored by (no surprise) the Iowa Pork Producers Association, in a state that produces more pork than any other.
  3. Peppermint bars. Oreo crust, peppermint ice cream, fudge sauce. What’s not to like?
  4. Hot beef sundaes. This must be Iowa’s version of Canada’s poutine. It’s sponsored by the Iowa Cattleman’s Association and is described by the Register as “two scoops of hand-mashed, homestyle potatoes surrounded by slow-roasted, fork-tender roast beef topped with savory beef gravy, a sprinkling of shredded cheddar cheese and finished with a sweet red cherry tomato on top.”
  5. Deep-fried cheese curds. They also come on a stick, and there’s a related mozzarella stick that comes in a honey-sriracha variety.

What can Democratic candidates gobble up that will impress Iowa voters? There are newer food entries to choose from that will still meet candidates’ dietary guidelines. But their proposals on farm policy and positions on corn-based ethanol might win more votes than chowing down on deep-fried pecan pie on a stick topped with bacon and caramel bits.

In a series of profiles, The New York Times asked about candidates’ favorite comfort foods on the campaign trail. Here’s a complete list, which ranges from a baked potato for Amy Klobuchar to vegetables (naturally!) for Cory Booker. Pete Buttigieg will always accept beef jerky from a supporter. Marianne Williamson has NO comfort foods. Sad! So here are suggestions on how to impress voters with policy and still please candidates’ palates.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is apparently very fond of the pink frosted donuts favored by Homer Simpson and often orders Dunkin’ Donuts’ strawberry frosted sprinkles donuts for staffers. There’s no shortage of donut-inspired foods at the fair, including donut sundaes. Warren could woo small farmers with her policy position (you knew she would have a plan for that) against big agriculture and in favor of small family farms.

California Sen. Kamala Harris may have learned to master Indian cooking from her mother, along with her civil rights commitment, but there don’t seem to be Indian foods on the complete fair food list. Maybe she could find enough spice in the Caribbean leg of lamb taco to honor her father’s home country of Jamaica. (The same could be said of Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam, also the son of a Jamaican immigrant.) Otherwise, Harris could tout her bill to strengthen labor protections for farm workers, also backed by other candidates.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has a serious love of ice cream. His campaign staff gave away Joe Cones during the first Democratic debate in Miami, claiming they tasted “like victory” (how’d that work out?). If ice cream doesn’t do the trick, Biden could describe his policy for more investment in food, agriculture, and health programs in rural areas.

Speaking of ice cream: The Vermont ice cream moguls, Ben & Jerry’s, are longtime supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Ben Cohen even created a special ice cream flavor, Bernie’s Yearning, in 2016. This year, Sanders is courting farmers with a proposal to break up big agriculture companies and increase federal investment in struggling rural areas.

Being a vegan, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker is going to have to pass on many traditional Iowa favorites. Perhaps he can try one of the blended fruit smoothie coolers  available, though he could impress Iowa farmers with a roasted ear of sweet corn.  He’s more likely to impress farmers with his policy proposals against big mergers of food and agriculture companies.

Since her state is directly north of Iowa, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar should feel right at home with the gustatory delights of the fair. Klobuchar will woo corn farmers with her strong support of ethanol and has a proposal to protect the renewable fuel industry. When it comes to snacks, she should try the salad-on-a-stick, lest she repeat the infamous eating-salad-with-a-comb incident.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg stirred up some social media controversy early in the campaign when, in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” snippet, he declared definitively that a hot dog isn’t a sandwich. He likely won’t think a corn dog is a sandwich, either, although you can get them wrapped in bacon, in a jalapeno double bacon variety, as a corn brat, in a veggie version, and gluten-free. Or he could just talk to Iowans about how his New Rising Tide plan would expand federal protections to farm and domestic workers.

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke loves to hop up on restaurant counters and tabletops to address crowds of Iowa voters, although his Soap Box speech is as elevated as he’ll get. As a Texan, he might enjoy some of the numerous barbecue offerings, despite the false claims of his 2018 Senate opponent, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, that O’Rourke wanted to ban barbecue across the state. But he might pick up support from Iowa farmers with his plan for farm-to-table restaurants in all communities to eliminate food deserts.

In 2014, when San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro was nominated to be President Obama’s secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, his twin brother, Texas Rep. Joaquín Castro, gave him advice on the best Mexican restaurants in Washington, D.C. We obviously don’t want to stereotype Castro’s food choices, but there’s no shortage of Mexican food at the fair, and guacamole made fresh with ingredients on a cart and served with fresh chips sounds especially tasty. As policy, Castro would strengthen protections for immigrant guest workers.

A natural fit for former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock would be Rocky Mountain oysters, which they could munch while Hickenlooper describes his farm-to-table program as governor and Bennett criticizes how Donald’s Trump’s trade war with China has hurt farmers.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, whose state grows an average of 2.5 million tons of apples a year, can choose an apple item such as apple eggrolls or apple tacos while he describes his goals for growing agriculture. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio concentrates more on urban than rural farming but he also might enjoy snacks that remind him of the Big Apple. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand especially might like the boozy pecan caramel apple, since she told The New York Times that her favorite comfort food on the campaign trail was a glass of whiskey at the end of the night. But she’ll try to win over voters with her Safe School Meals for Kids Act that bans pesticides from school lunches.

Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton listed burgers as his favorite campaign comfort food, but in between bites he could tell voters about his plan to support small-scale farmers and increase access to local food. Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney likely wants to win points with his Heartland Fair Deal to expand agriculture markets, so eating corn on the cob might make an impression.

Ohio Rep. TIm Ryan is another ice cream fan, which could contradict the subject of his book, The Real Food Revolution: Healthy Eating, Green Groceries, and the Return of the American Family Farm. Former tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, pushing the idea of a universal basic income to fight the encroachment of automation, might like anything as long as it’s not made by robots. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard might feel at home with the Hawaiian Pineapple Bowl as she talks about her plan for tax breaks and incentives for small food producers. Author Marianne Williamson founded Project Angel Food, which delivers healthy meals to those with serious illnesses in the Los Angeles area, so she might check out the many healthy choices available at the fair.

Joe Sestak and Tom Steyer? These late entries can find their own snacks.

To learn more about where candidates stand on these issues, check out Civil Eats, a website about the American food system and sustainable agriculture. The group has compiled a list of all candidates’ positions on food and farming.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on July 21, 2019.

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