As they try to get the attention of voters in the early primaries, presidential candidates including Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, and Hillary Clinton all headed to the Iowa Fair this weekend, eating pork chops, drinking lemonade and viewing the fair's 104-year-old Butter Cow. Capital B, capital C, Butter Cow, for the uninitiated. Even in the sweltering August heat, the refrigerated cow is one of the attractions at the Iowa State Fair, which can draw a million visitors during its 11-day run. So why exactly would politicians pay homage to the Butter Cow?
It has a lot less to do with the butter than it does with trying to seem genuine to Iowa voters. And perhaps no recent candidate has learned this lesson more harshly than Hillary Clinton did. Her failure to connect with Iowa voters leading to a caucus loss that she called "excruciating" in her book Hard Choices, is widely viewed as a major strategic blunder she has to avoid repeating if she wants to win in 2016.
While Clinton showed up, got some food on a stick, and shook hands with Iowa fairgoers, Trump apparently saw no need to try to alter his image to seem more "down home," arriving in a field adjacent to the fair in his private helicopter, according to the Los Angeles Times. Sanders may have had the burn of the day when he sarcastically apologized for not bringing his own helicopter, as Trump flew overhead.
For what it's worth, yes, there actually is a cow made entirely of butter on display every year at the Iowa State Fair, which was first sculpted in 1911, according to the fair's web site. Layers of butter — about 600 pounds' worth — are applied to a wood, metal, and steel mesh frame. "Much of the butter is recycled and reused for up to 10 years," the website states.
Clinton and Trump did not cross paths at the fair, unfortunately (because how awkward/amazing would that have been?!), and neither elected to speak at the open-air stage called the Soapbox. The New York Times reported that GOP candidate Jeb Bush got heckled at the Soapbox on Friday, which is the risk of showing up there at all: Fairgoers can speak (or yell) directly to the candidates.
With the endorsement of the very well-liked former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, Clinton seemed to have learned from her performance from eight years ago. Harkin told the Times her campaign was much improved.
More personal, more hands-on, more small-towns and little groups around the state of Iowa. She has an organization that is much sharper and keener.
As the campaign for 2016 grinds on, the field of candidates will likely thin out, as voters decide which one they'll choose. But in Iowa, candidates get a valuable, early chance to connect with voters. And the smart ones know that if they don't show up for the butter, their chances at the White House are pretty much toast.