My Own Private Iowa

Feature: One man’s humble quest on the campaign trail

Walther Iowa

Credit: Gary Locke


Des Moines, Iowa—It’s approximately 7:30 a.m. CST and I’m at the Iowa Events Center, where the Iowa Pork Congress is taking place this week. Right now I’m looking for John Kasich, who’s rumored to be hanging around the exhibit halls, though he won’t be speaking today at the forum the Pork Congress is holding for presidential candidates. According to a Pork Congress staffer, every candidate, Republican and Democrat, was invited to the forum: a few agreed, some wavered, but a few didn’t even respond to emails.

I can’t find Kasich. Instead I drink more coffee and read brochures for a company called Manure Magic, which specializes in "Environmentally friendly control of odor, crust, and solids." I have no idea what "crust" means in that phrase, and hope I never learn.

At 8 a.m. Mike Huckabee addresses the forum, which is down one level from the exhibit hall. The author of Guns, Grits, God, and Gravy is such a natural for this kind of venue it’s hard to remember why anyone was surprised that he beat out all his better-funded rivals in Iowa in 2008. He starts by talking about how much he loves eating barbecued ribs ("You can tell by looking at me") before settling into ethanol, of which it is also safe to say that he is a fan. "I can’t imagine anyone in Iowa supporting any candidate who doesn’t support renewable fuel standards."

I would be lying if I said that I have been paying very much attention to the Huckabee campaign lately, so I have no idea how what he is saying stacks up against his current stump speech. But it’s punchy and occasionally funny and sometimes risibly over the top, as when he jokes about how every candidate in Iowa pretends to care about pork on a stick at the State Fair. "Take one bite, my foot—you touch mine and I’ll kill ya." He excoriates Chipotle for its snobbishness, not a quality I would attribute to the casual restaurant where I am often forced to eat lunch, or to its beanied customers. He also tells us that he is one of only three candidates in this race who are not "wholly owned subsidiaries of Wall Street billionaire hedge-fund guys."

Unfortunately, only I, three other journalists (plus one guy shooting B-roll for Fox), and four or five members of the public hear any of this. After one or two questions from the small audience, Huckabee opens things up to the press. The two reporters in the front row, both of them with an online agricultural trade publication, have nothing. Another woman sitting across from me asks him about Donald Trump’s decision not to take part in Thursday night’s debate. "I have no opinion about it. You know, I have never gotten a question at a town hall in this state about Donald Trump. The reporters ask me about it."

It falls to me, then. I ask him who the other two candidates not beholden to Wall Street are—is one of them Bernie Sanders?

"I don’t follow the Democrats. Rick Santorum is not corporately financed." He pauses and adds that the same is true of Trump.

Mike Huckabee / AP

Mike Huckabee / AP

Walking out I strike up a conversation with silver-haired V., who doesn’t want me to use her first name, and her husband, Junior. They see my media badge and ask me where I work.

"Washington Free Beacon," says Junior. "That’s not here."

"Is that Washington state or Washington, D.C.?" asks V.


"Oh," says Junior. "Because we’ve also got a Washington County in Iowa."

V. tells me that she and Junior supported Huckabee in 2008 and were happy to catch the end of his remarks. This time, they’re leaning toward Cruz. They are the first of many enthusiastic non-supporters of Donald Trump I meet today. "He looks like a spoiled kid," V. says.

I have a bit of time before I’m supposed to go to the Dupont Room at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Center, where Susan Sarandon will be appearing at a Women for Bernie lunch, so I go for another walk around the exhibits. It turns out that Kasich won’t be here until tomorrow, so I just take in the scenery. One poster will be with me for the rest of my days:


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When I start walking from the events center where the Pork Congress is meeting, I can see the Botanical Center’s dome. The woman who greets me invites me to tour the conservatory gratis when I say that I’m here for the Sanders event. Inside it is 80 degrees, and I am surrounded by cactuses and tropical hanging plants and children on what I think must be a field trip. I am grateful when a staffer approaches me and says it’s time to go to the Dupont Room for the event.

No sooner have I signed my name on the check-in list than I hear her say, "If you’re press, please sign this list over here" and repeat, "Press must fill out a separate form." Here I panic. What if she sees me taking notes? So I own up that, actually, err, I am indeed a member of the press here to cover the event and not a prospective caucus-goer or volunteer. She asks me whether I have a credential and whether I saw their media advisory about this thing, to both of which of course I say no. She leads me to a table in the back corner, where I receive no lunch and am not even offered water or coffee.

I don’t actually mind this arrangement. While it would be nice to sit at one of the tables and chat up all the ladies—and the handful of young and dorky-looking men—not to mention getting one of those tarts that everyone else has got and maybe another cup of coffee or some Perrier, being in the corner is great for listening and taking notes. What I lose in access I make up for in ease of recording. These are the kind of things I hear sitting:

"Is there a hashtag for this thing?"

"I love Witches of Eastwick!"

"Are we seating [i.e., giving out assigned seats] people?"

"No, we’re not seating, unfortunately."

"Earlier today I literally bumped into her—wow, she’s incredible!"

"Is there a hashtag for this event?"

"She’s had lots and lots of cool boyfriends."

"All my students are pumped for Bernie. Of course, I teach theater…"

"Is there a hashtag today?"

"Maybe just #FeeltheBern?"

I am not totally ignored, though. One woman walking past stops and gives me an intense, earnest look.

"Has anyone ever told you you look like Philip Seymour Hoffman?"

Like a bloated heroin addict whose hairline is receding, you mean, I think but do not say.

"No, I’ve never heard that," I say for real.

"It’s awesome."

"You’re all by yourself," says another kind-hearted lady, who also asks me where I work. (This isn’t displayed on my official, albeit temporary, Bernie Sanders campaign press credential.) When I tell her, she asks whether it’s a newspaper or online and I start to mumble something about how it’s both when someone else comes to the rescue: "There are so many news agencies you’ve never heard of."

When Sarandon finally walks in at half past noon I am a bit surprised to find her not accompanied by Sanders. No one else seems to mind, though. Applause is loud and general throughout the room, as are cheers and superlatives and fangirlish bits. (I hear someone mention The Witches of Eastwick again—not for the last time today.) "My mom loved you in Stepmom!" I say, but I don’t think Sarandon hears me.

Sarandon looks neat and sensible in her scarf and purple eyeglasses. She seems nice and her remarks are mostly cogent and in keeping with what most people who support Sanders over Hillary Clinton will tell you. She mentions Clinton’s support for the Iraq war—"a very wounding time"—and her flip-flopping on gay marriage and says that the presumed Democratic frontrunner is "in bed with Wall Street." More amusing is her response to a question from a woman in the audience about what to do when needled for supposedly betraying their sex. "They say, ‘Don’t you want a woman in the White House?’ I say ‘Yes, Elizabeth Warren!’" She thanks all of us "on behalf of [her] children and granddaughter."

Bernie Sanders and Susan Sarandon / AP

Bernie Sanders and Susan Sarandon / AP

After the lunch is finished I walk out front and head back to the Events Center, where I finally get something to eat from one of the stalls at the Pork Congress. After a smoke break I return to the forum, where Carly Fiorina is supposed to be speaking at 3:00 p.m. When I sit down I find two journalists trying to nail down the time. I end up talking to Dan and Jennifer, hog farmers from Minnesota, and their four children. They are social conservatives who are trying to make up their minds between Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Fiorina. They also dislike Trump. "Anyone’s better than Clinton," though, Dan says—sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.

Fiorina steps out from behind the podium and walks through the audience. It is hard to remember why, after her surge back in October, she has come down this far in the polls. Part of me thinks that a businessperson with a coastal address whose credentials as a social conservative are of suspiciously recent vintage, however articulate and intelligent, was always a long shot at best, but then I realize that this is more or less the profile of the current frontrunner, minus one or two of those adjectives. I do think it’s a bit weird that she is intentionally dropping the "g" in "ing" these days, especially because she sometimes forgets to do it.

Like everyone else today she is very hard on Trump. At one point when mentioning Russia in the course of attacking Trump’s foreign policy qualifications, she accidentally refers to him as "Donald Putin." If this slip-up is staged, it’s perfectly done because everyone in the room, even the person doing round-up interviews for a New York Times Magazine piece, is laughing. The most memorable question comes at the end from a goofy-looking kid in a grey fleece—about which jacket more anon—in the front row.

"I’ve had the opportunity to visit several animal sanctuaries where there are lots of rescued animals like cows and, um, chickens and pigs. It’s always an amazing experience when I go there because these animals are individuals with unique personalities. Often when you go they will come running right up to you the first time they see you. They like to play and oftentimes they are very affectionate. They have a vibrance about them and a curiosity and an intelligence—"

He makes it this far before a staffer with the Pork Congress asks him whether he has a question. He continues for another 30 or so seconds as cries of "Question?" go up around the room and Fiorina stares him down. Her look of disdain is worthy of Margaret Thatcher. I enjoy it very much. When he trails off, she says, "Wow," and everyone laughs at the poor kid. "You are sitting in the middle of the Pork Congress. You ought to be grateful that these people produce food for this state and this country."

Suddenly he rushes in front of her carrying a banner with two pigs on it and the words "We Want to Live." Aside from a few shouts of "Go away," there is not much fuss, but it is clear that the farmers are not amused. "I wish," Fiorina says, "that there were"—Carly, a fluent French speaker, always uses the subjunctive where appropriate—"as much passion on that young man’s face for unborn children as there is for animals."

This, predictably, brings down the place. There is so much applause that I am almost suspicious, and though I want to say goodbye to Dan and Jennifer, I rush out to find the guy and see whether there is any chance he is a plant. When I find him in the lobby a reporter from the Des Moines Register is already chatting him up. He tells us that his name is Matt Johnson and that he is with Direct Action Everywhere, the same group that disrupted the Lions game on Thanksgiving 2014. He tells us that he supports "total animal liberation" and that all animal products are immoral. I ask him about his black shoes. "No, I get this all the time," he says, smiling brightly. "They’re pleather and the jacket is polyester." He also tells me, when I ask him about Fiorina’s response, that he can’t talk about abortion on the record.

Carly Fiorina / AP

Carly Fiorina / AP

It’s well past 4:00 and now I have to catch an Uber to a place called Zombie Burger, where Ben and Jerry, of "Phish Food" and "Cherry Garcia" fame, are having a meet and greet with Sanders supporters. The beer list is interminable: Exile Beatnik Sour, Peace Tree Blonde Fatale, Madhouse Vanilla Imperial Porter, Millstream John’s White. This is not my kind of bar. (The lonely Busch Light 40s sitting in a refrigerator just above the sweet and sour mix make me feel a bit more comfortable.)

Vermont’s foremost ice-cream tycoons are taking their time, and it turns out that I will only be able to admire Ben’s—or is it Jerry’s—Bernie sign made of what look like purple Christmas lights and watch the pair of them deliberate over beers. Instead I chat with Gaby Hoffmann, whom I fail to recognize.

When I see her she is also trying to figure out where Ben and Jerry are. I ask her whether she was at the Sarandon event and pose the question about what she says to women who try to shame her for not supporting Hillary. "I wouldn’t vote for a woman just because she’s a woman," she says. "I’m not voting for Bernie because of his anatomy. Besides, he could be a woman before this race is over. We’ll have to see."

I ask her about the issues that are most important to her—number one is campaign finance reform—and about poor Martin O’Malley, who is having a happy hour tonight in Ames at 7:00 p.m. that I almost wish I were attending. "I dunno," she says. "He seem progressive, but he just doesn’t give me the feeling." Her answers are funny, but I decide to make sure I can quote her.

"You’re Gaby, you said? What’s your last name?"


"What’s your occupation?"

"I’m an actress."

I paused. Do many actresses live in Iowa?

"In theater or—"

"In television and film."

It is probably a good thing that thanks to Ben and Jerry I am behind in what was always going to be a tight schedule and have to leave for a Rubio event because I don’t have it in me to say, "Oh, my goodness, I loved you in Girls" or ask what has brought her to Des Moines.

I miss some of Rubio’s speech at Wellmann’s, a bar in West Des Moines, though the good bits are memorable. I am sure Bernie Sanders’s supporters will agree with him when he says that their man is highly qualified to be the president of Sweden. The bar is absolutely packed and when he finishes it is impossible to get near him. By the time I decide that I should hang back and maybe grab a beer before trying to get a question out of Rubio, I realize that I am running behind again. I also realize that I am getting tired.

Ted Cruz is speaking a ways up the road at what is billed as a pro-life rally, though it is really a series of warm-ups from Rick Perry—whom I am happy to see—and from Steve King and Tony Perkins, followed by a version of Cruz’s best, or at any rate most representative, stumpery. I am also distinctly uncomfortable with the quasi-messianic rhetoric about God and the imminent spiritual awakening that Steve King uses when he talks about why social conservatives must unite behind the junior senator from Texas.

The venue is way too small. Even press people are perching laptops on coffee tables and plants and water fountains outside the main space after giving up on the idea of getting anywhere near the action. I am a bit bolder and put my indie rock skills to the test, to get to where I can at least see what’s going on. The most characteristic moment of the night comes when a woman and her husband apologize while making their way toward the door with their toddler son. "Sorry, sorry, he just keeps screaming." (She means Cruz, not her two-year-old.)

We finish up around 8:30. By now I am overcome with empathy thinking about how my schedule has been pretty much what a candidate’s must be like. One day of it is more than enough for me.

I guess I’ll never be president, Mom.

Matthew Walther   Email Matthew | Full Bio | RSS
Matthew Walther is associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon. He was previously assistant editor of the American Spectator. His work has also appeared in the Spectator of London, First Things, the Weekly Standard, National Review, the Daily Beast, and other publications. He lives with his wife, Lydia, in Alexandria, Virginia. His Twitter handle is @matthewwalther.

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