- Over 1 million people are expected to attend
- The Iowa State Fair is a valued stop on the campaign trail for presidential hopefuls
Des Moines, Iowa (CNN)It's as American as fried apple pie on a stick.
The annual Iowa State Fair has come to town, kicking off an 11-day run with a parade Wednesday evening at the State Capitol in downtown Des Moines with Gov. Terry Branstad. It's a time-honored Midwest tradition -- and a valued stop on the campaign trail for presidential hopefuls.
Attractions at this year's fair include livestock and agriculture exhibitions, art shows, amusement rides such as the Tilt-a-Whirl, Big Bumper Boats, and the Wacky Worm (must be 42" to ride), and, of course, the Midwest Dairy Association's Butter Cow (a life-sized cow sculpted out of about 600 pounds of butter).
There are 70 different kinds of fried foods on a stick, and new delicacies such as deep-fried nacho balls, fried peanut butter and jelly on a stick, and pumpkin spice funnel cake, among others, are on the menu this year.
The fair's grandstand packs an all-star lineup, with performances by Carrie Underwood, Def Leppard, Reba McEntire and The Fray. Over on the free stage, fairgoers can hit up the Village People, Britney Spears' sister Jamie Lynn's new country act, or even Sir Mix-A-Lot of "Baby Got Back" fame.
Of course, an expected attendance of over 1 million makes the fair a must-attend for presidential candidates in both parties as they try to court voters here in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. One of their top fairgrounds destinations is the Des Moines Register's Soapbox, a modern take on the old-fashioned political activity of "getting up on the soapbox." Presidential candidates are given 20 minutes to make their pitch to attendees in any format. Hundreds turn out to see the spectacle, and candidates are often heckled.
Last time around, Mitt Romney made his infamous "corporations are people" comment at the soapbox. In 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama skipped the soapbox, instead taking daughters Sasha and Malia for a spin on the bumper cars.
Fourteen Republican candidates are expected to participate in the soapbox. On the Democratic side, soapbox participants include Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton will also attend the fair on Saturday.
When they're not addressing the masses, candidates will be found across the fairgrounds, sampling the many specialty snacks, taking a peek at the Big Boar (it's a 1000+ pound boar), admiring the Butter Cow, flipping pork chops at the National Pork Producer Council's tent, and shaking hands with as many voters as they can find.
"The caucuses are about face-to-face campaigning, and you're going to get the biggest audience possible by walking around the fairgrounds. You're going to get the most exposure, you're going to see the most faces. And it's important in a state like Iowa, where what gets people to turn out on caucus night is whether they've had a face-to-face interaction with the candidate," said Annah Backstrom, the Des Moines Register's content strategist for politics, who directs the Register's political teams.
Some things to watch this year: will candidates like Bernie Sanders -- who has been received with huge crowds -- attract a bigger gathering at the soapbox? How will candidates respond to heckling? Will Rick Perry, who suspended pay for his campaign staff this week, generate enough interest to reignite his campaign during his Aug. 19 stop?
A CNN/ORC poll of Iowa voters released Wednesday has Donald Trump taking the GOP lead with 22% from previous Iowa frontrunner Scott Walker, now in third place at 9%. But over five months away from caucus night, top Iowa GOP strategists suggest it's still anyone's game. Hillary Clinton is holding a 50% to 31% lead over upstart Sanders, who is gaining ground in early-primary state New Hampshire.
The lead-up to the summer tradition is not without its partisan divide.
"What do you call it when you have nine governors, five senators, two incredibly talented businesspeople, and one world-famous surgeon running for the Republican nomination? The Field of Dreams, of course," the Republican Party of Iowa said in a press release Wednesday. The party plans to tout their "Field of Dreams" at a booth in the varied Industries building.
The Iowa Democratic Party, meanwhile, took the opportunity to jab the GOP: "While our Democrats will be at the State Fair talking about their work on the progressive issues and values that all Iowans share, including economic fairness, social equality, and the importance of high quality education, the GOP field attending the fair will be talking about their own positions that seem stuck in a time warp from the earliest days of the fair," a spokesperson for the party wrote.