Olivia Nuzzi on Reporting From the Iowa State Fair

photo credit: New York magazine
photo credit: New York magazine

The Iowa caucus isn’t until February 2020, but politicians seeking the Democratic presidential nomination have already made an important campaign stop in the state this past week. Many of them attended the Iowa State Fair, where they spoke with voters and were photographed next to the event’s famous Butter Cow sculpture. New York magazine’s Washington correspondent Olivia Nuzzi has been reporting from the fairgrounds (and sharing some highlights on the magazine’s Instagram). We gave her a call in Iowa to hear about the experience.

Katie Couric Media: First of all, can you tell us why the Iowa State Fair is such an important event in the political world?
Olivia Nuzzi: Iowa is the first caucus state, which means it is the first place where voting takes place in America in a presidential election. So Iowa has had a super outsized influence on our presidential politics for a long time because of that, and candidates tend to spend a lot of time here in the couple of years leading up to an election. If you’re thinking of running, you come to Iowa and you drive across the state and meet with voters. 

The State Fair takes place the summer before the February caucuses, and everyone is here. The Des Moines Register has an event called the Political Soapbox, and they have candidates get up on stage, speak for a few minutes and answer some questions. Otherwise it’s a bunch of media and candidates and their staff running around the state fair. 

What’s it like behind the scenes with the candidates at the fair? Is there the same hectic energy and urgency you’d see at any other political event?
It’s very hectic. I didn’t realize, even though I obviously cover events that are similar, how you would see a photo of Rick Perry or Michele Bachman eating a corn dog, and it looks like this peaceful, wholesome thing where they’re just talking to voters. But what’s surrounding them is just a mass of cameras and reporters, and it’s moving really quickly. It’s really crowded, and it’s really hot.

I was with Bernie Sanders on Sunday and he was making his way over to the Butter Cow. When you look at the photos of him with the Butter Cow, it doesn’t convey the absolute mayhem surrounding that moment. I was in that room, but there were so many people that I couldn’t even see the Butter Cow and I couldn’t see Bernie taking a photo in front of it. It’s just very, very hectic and cramped. 

What were some of the highlights for you?
I’m working on a story about a particular candidate so I was not at the fair itself the entire time I’ve been here. I was only at the fair two different days so far. But Iowa is such a big state. So a lot of the time when you’re covering a candidate here, primarily you’re just driving. The day before yesterday I drove for five hours total. It’s just a lot of time in a car going from Point A to Point B, showing up to watch a candidate speak somewhere for 10 minutes and then getting back into your car to drive to another town where the candidate speaks for another 10 minutes.

It always surprises me that one innocuous gaffe that you didn’t think was a big deal or somebody misspoke in some way or one comment that you didn’t even hear because you’re in a scrum and it’s too crowded and one person got it on their mic, that becomes the news of the day. It’s pretty much always surprising to me. I don’t know if that’s the highlight or the lowlight, but it’s just something I’ve noticed.

What moments do you think will stick with Iowa caucus voters moving forward?
The caucus this year is the first week of February, so it’s a ways off. I didn’t see every single candidate that came to the state fair, but anecdotally I’ve heard that Warren had one of the biggest crowds and Bernie had another huge crowd, but Biden supporters felt the strongest.

I don’t know if anything in particular that happened here is going to make a difference come February with voting. First of all, you don’t have to win in Iowa to win the nomination. Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucus in 2016 and obviously we know how that one shook out. So it’s not necessary to win here if you want to be the nominee; it’s just necessary to perform well here.

You were following one particular candidate, but were you also hearing anything from Iowans on the ground in particular?
Iowa voters, like New Hampshire voters, are notorious for holding out until the last possible moment to decide who they’re going to vote for — because they get to see all the candidates and meet all the candidates and talk to them. They get special treatment in a way that most American voters don’t, and they know how powerful their votes are. So they’re very savvy about that. But everyone kept saying that it’s been a bit different this time around because the candidates are not talking about local issues here the way that they have previously. You’re hearing a pretty nationally-focused stump speech from most of the candidates. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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