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Why is the Iowa State Fair such a big deal?

Here's how the Iowa State Fair could help voters narrow down the field of presidential candidates in the 2020 election. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

It’s just a few days on the political calendar, but what happens at the Iowa State Fair can echo through an entire presidential race.

It takes on its political significance in the year before a presidential election (that’s now). Because most presidential campaigns circle this event in red on their calendars, Washington Post reporters have covered the Iowa State Fair for years. Below is some of what they, and The Fix, have learned about it.

Why is the Iowa State Fair important?

Iowa is the first state to vote in presidential primaries, when both parties hold their caucuses in January or February of election years. So presidential candidates spend much of their time campaigning in the state, hoping to get a boost in the rest of the primaries by doing well in Iowa. A no-brainer way to campaign in Iowa is to attend the state’s fair, which is six months before the caucuses and is held in the state’s most populous city: Des Moines.

The fair started Thursday (it runs Aug. 8-18), which means we can expect candidates and their campaigns to be there throughout the weekend.

What do politicians do there?

They see the butter cow. It’s a 600-pound cow made of butter, and stands in a glass-enclosed 40-degree cooler. The Post’s Elise Viebeck explained in 2015 that it’s one of the main attractions at the fair. Many candidates take pictures in front of it and blast it out on social media. Here’s 2016 Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina.

They eat lots of fried food. That’s what most fairgoers come for. In 2015, Washington Post journalists ate their way through the fair and captured it on film — including a 1,650-calorie deep-fried nacho balls dish.

In 2015, the Post ate our way through the Iowa State Fair and took our camera along. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

While noshing on a corn dog is a way to show you eat as regular people do, eating is not a good look for anyone captured on camera, least of all heavily scrutinized politicians. Here’s a photo gallery of presidential candidates awkwardly trying to bite into food, much of it at the Iowa State Fair.

They get on a “soapbox.” Candidates ritually appear on the fair’s political soapbox, which is made of bales of hay and is sponsored by the Des Moines Register newspaper.

Does going there really help candidates?

Campaigning at the fair is harder than it looks. As The Post’s Holly Bailey pointed out this week, presidential candidates have been haunted by what happens here — from John F. Kerry (joking with a fair attendee about why someone would move to Iowa), to Fred Thompson (wearing designer shoes), to Mitt Romney (saying “corporations are people” in a speech he gave at the fair).

The fair “is just dotted with land mines,” David Kochel, Romney’s senior adviser in Iowa during his 2012 run, told Bailey.

As this year’s fair gets going, former vice president Joe Biden in particular is in the spotlight. He ended his 1987 campaign after a speech at the fair that took lines from another speech that was not his own. At a town hall in Des Moines on Thursday, Biden told a group of mostly minority voters that “poor kids” are just as bright as “white kids,” The Post’s John Wagner reported. His campaign said he misspoke by conflating wealth with whiteness, but that gaffe will trail him to the fair.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden corrected himself in Des Moines on Aug. 8 after he compared children living in poverty to white children. (Video: Reuters)

But the risk is worth the reward, if you can pull off.

Standing on the soapbox in 2015, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), then considered a long-shot primary challenger to Hillary Clinton, piqued the national media’s attention when an estimated 1,000 people came to hear him speak. He nearly beat Clinton in the Iowa caucuses a few months later.

And now-President Trump used the fair to show off an early sign of how his unusual approach to politicking won him devotees. As The Post's Philip Rucker and Jenna Johnson reported in 2015:

“A political Willy Wonka, Trump offered rides in his helicopter, which landed at a nearby baseball field, to randomly selected handfuls of Iowa children. ‘Come here,’ he said to the kids. ‘Does anyone want to take a ride? It’s nice, right? . . . Who wants to go first?’ ”

Trump, they reported, “was out of his element here but undoubtedly in command."

The fair has been criticized for holding up a magnifying glass to the candidates that forces them to try to be authentic and doesn’t really represent who they are.

But as long as Iowa is the first in the nation to vote, candidates are going to keep risking the Iowa State Fair.