Candidates at IA State Fair

2020 Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden, John Delaney, Pete Buttigieg and Tulsi Gabbard shared policies and pork chops at the Iowa State Fair.

DES MOINES — At some point, just about every presidential candidate shows up at the Iowa State Fair. The result at this year’s fair was an almost overwhelming crowd of candidates, press and political junkies.

Between the soapbox where they gave speeches to the pork tent where many flipped chops, there were enough 2020 candidates wandering the grounds that they almost show up as their own demographic in fair attendance statistics.

“It’s interesting to listen and to read about their agricultural plans,” says Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President Craig Hill. “I think we need something practical.”

Trade in general and the present trade war with China are serious concerns for Hill. But for many Democratic activists, electability is a big deal.

“I think the electorate has changed,” says Patrick Deluhery, a former state legislator from Eastern Iowa who is now retired. “And I think there is a sorting out process that we’re involved with.”

There is certainly plenty of sorting to be done. With 24 Democrats competing for the chance to oppose Donald Trump in the 2020 general election, it is easy for voters to get confused. Even the most informed voters have trouble naming every candidate.

“I think we had 13 or 14 scheduled to be at the pork grill,” says Kelsey Sutter, marketing director for the Iowa Pork Producers Association. “We’re a bipartisan organization. We keep an open door for any candidate.”

But Sutter and other farm leaders say that while they are listening to candidates, they are also trying to educate them about the issues that are important to members of their organizations. That may be trade or biofuels or any of a number of other items.

At times, however, the crush of humanity made it difficult to get a word in with some candidates. It also made it difficult for those candidates to actually have conversations with farmers.

Still, it was a chance to see and hear and learn.

And the messages were varied, if similar.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, pushed ideas such as a $15 minimum wage and universal health care and free college tuition.

“Four years ago that idea (was considered wild, extreme),” he said. Today, he added, it is accepted as possible and important by many voters.

He added that “real change never, ever takes place from the top down.”

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock took a different approach, stressing his ability to win elections in a state that is considered Republican.

“I get stuff done,” he said.

He also said climate change is impacting farmers, saying the fire season is now much longer in Montana and that more people need to pay attention to “what our original conservationists, our farmers, are doing.”

Former Maryland Congressman John Delaney also stressed pragmatism.

“My father was an electrician. It was honest work,” he said, adding Democrats should be working to unite the country.

Tulsi Gabbard, a congresswoman from Hawaii, talked about her service in the military and about the importance of uniting the country and honoring those who serve by keeping them out of unnecessary wars.

She criticized President Trump for tearing up the nuclear weapons treaty with Russia.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg criticized Trump, but said the real question is what comes next. Trump is only a symptom of the problems facing the country, he added.

He joined Gabbard and others in talking about the problem of dark money in politics. He also talked about the need to invest in education and common sense gun safety reform.

And Buttigieg said he thought the time had likely passed for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, although he added he opposed the Trump tariffs and would pursue trade deals with other nations.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is leading in the polls, and he drew a large crowd. He told the group that corporations are too focused on shareholders at the expense of workers.

“The idea that we don’t reward work as much as wealth is bizarre,” he said.

The government should be working on behalf of the middle class, he added, and said the president should be working to unify the country, something he said Trump simply does not do.

“We choose unity over division,” he said.

Biden also mentioned the idea of eliminating stepped-up basis, an item that may concern some farmers.

All of the candidates expressed deep concern with Trump and his behavior, which they all described as un-presidential. And many talked about the need to address the issue of race and white supremacy, as well as climate change and health care.

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Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.