How Candidates Display Their Midwestern Credentials
As the first-in-the-nation caucus, Iowa attracts an enormous amount of attention from presidential candidates as they attempt to gain what George H.W. Bush famously called the “Big Mo.” In order to better connect with Iowans, candidates like to play up their Midwestern credentials when meeting voters at events across the state.
The Iowa State Fair, which ran from August 8-18, is one such event where presidential candidates get a chance to show their personality. Candidates dress down into more casual clothes, eat all kinds of food that can be put on sticks (or deep-fried), and speak directly with voters.
The pinnacle of presidential politics at the Iowa State Fair is the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox. Each one of the presidential candidates is invited to speak for twenty minutes on a stage facing hundreds of fair-goers and give the pitch for their candidacy. Unsurprisingly, candidates like to use this opportunity to flaunt their connections to Iowa.
I attended the Iowa State Fair on Saturday, August 10th, and was able to listen to seven different candidates stump on the soapbox. Of those seven, the Midwestern credentials claimed by Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar and New Jersey senator Cory Booker stood out the most. Below is an analysis of how each candidate explained their connections to Iowa.
Presidential candidates attempt to play up their Midwestern credentials as a way to connect with Iowa voters. This can be a successful strategy that is made easier if one is already from the Midwest. Iowa has a history of favoring regional candidates. In 1996, Bob Dole of Kansas won the Republican caucus, and in 1992, home-grown Senator Tom Harkin won an overwhelming victory in the Democratic caucus.1
Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar seems to be aware of this trend, and the rhetoric used in her soapbox consisted of Midwestern folksiness and imagery. For example, she began her speech by making an appeal to Midwestern kinship: “I am the senator from Minnesota, where we can see Iowa from our porch!” She continued that theme by comparing the Minnesota State Fair with the Iowa State Fair, noting that both fairs display unique dairy sculptures (the former, a butter princess; the latter, a butter cow).
Senator Klobuchar also connected the similar climates of Minnesota and Iowa. She spoke about her presidential announcement speech where she stood in the middle of a strong Midwestern blizzard. She employed symbolism by describing the Mississippi river (which forms the eastern border of southeastern Minnesota and eastern Iowa) as the “river of our divides.” In order to find a better America, says Klobuchar, America needs to move across its differences to higher ground.
Finally, Klobuchar claimed that the Democratic nominee should come from a Midwestern state. She argued that a Midwestern candidate would be best equipped to deal with the issues facing rural America. When discussing climate change, Klobuchar conflated the state of Minnesota with Iowa and the Midwest: “We have to make the argument that (climate change) is also an economic issue for this country when we have seen a 50% increase in the cost of home insurance. That is a basic Minnesotan, Iowa, Midwestern argument that we can make.”
As Klobuchar continues her campaign in Iowa, look for her to make the case that a Minnesotan “next-door neighbor” best represents the interests of Iowans.
Although Cory Booker may represent a coastal state, he has a long-standing familial connection with the Hawkeye state. He began his allotted time on the soapbox by talking about his great-aunt and grandmother who grew up in Des Moines, IA. Booker noted that he was not the first in his family to attend the Iowa State Fair, as his great-aunt and grandmother had competed in the fair during the Great Depression.
Senator Booker stated that these ancestors laid Iowa roots that Booker is proud of today. His family originally moved from Alabama to the city of Buxton, IA, which became renowned as “Iowa’s black utopia.” The city was home to multiple racial and ethnic identity groups that modeled integration during the segregation era. Booker noted that some coal miners working in Buxton would voluntarily forfeit a day’s pay and send it to the surviving relatives of a deceased coal miner. To Booker, Buxton represented an America where individuals were not defined through the lens of their race, ethnicity, or religion, but through a commitment to the common good.
It remains to be seen if either Booker or Klobuchar will be able to pull greater support by pointing out their Midwestern credentials. For now, Iowa voters should look for and expect more interesting connections between candidates and the heartland.
1Hull, Christopher. 2008. Grassroots Rules: How the Iowa Caucus Helps Elect American Presidents. Stanford University Press.