Presidential candidates are not like the rest of us, no matter how many ways their campaign managers conjure up to say that they are; normal people don’t run for president. But there is one thing even the most driven politician has in common with their most humble constituent, living anywhere from middle America to the middle of Manhattan: food, a point that they are all too willing to make in their bid for popularity and power.
Humans must eat, and since the dawn of mass media, eating in public has slowly become as important a ritual as any other outward-facing custom on the campaign trail — a personality test, an empathy barometer, and a demonstration of cultural capital all rolled into one. It’s not new that the image of a candidate eating the wrong thing — or the right thing, but the wrong way — can derail a presidential campaign, but in a political culture whose one true nonpartisan value is relatability, and which has smashed into the Instagram era, the optics of what politicians eat, and how they eat it, have never been more carefully considered by candidates or by voters.
As the 2020 presidential campaign kicked off in earnest over the summer, Eater hit the trail with candidates for the Democratic nomination to examine the pomp and politics of political eating in our time: what candidates are trying to say with every bite, who they’re trying to say it to, and what they really mean, from pork chops to pie shakes, from state fairs to local diners.
The Iowa State Fair
Candidates might start lining up voters — and donors — months or even years before primary season, but it’s not unfair to say that most paths to the presidency begin at the Iowa State Fair. Home of the pivotal first presidential nominating contests, Iowa plays an outsized role in determining who will become the next president, and the annual state fair — a whirlwind of agricultural pageantry, fried food, and the things that make Iowa Iowa — is where many candidates make their grand debut to caucusgoers from across the state.
Officially, the candidates are there by invitation of the Des Moines Register, the largest newspaper in the state, to give a 20-minute speech on a picturesque stage flanked by bales of hay. But the true main event is the post-speech walk-and-talk, as candidates roam the fairgrounds eating food from vendors while speaking with supporters, curious voters, and the media. And most candidates follow the same rule of thumb when it comes to displaying their Iowa values on the fairground: Eat food, definitely too much, mostly fried.
There is no fair food more iconic than the corn dog. It also happens to demand the most high-wire act of eating that a presidential candidate is asked to perform. Consuming a phallic and flesh-colored corn dog without due care is a guaranteed unflattering meme in the making. This year, every candidate managed to escape the corn dog trap, with Bernie Sanders, Bill de Blasio, and Andrew Yang meeting the challenge head on, while Elizabeth Warren simply purchased one and used it as a prop as she walked around the fair — underscoring the importance of appearing to enjoy crowd-favorite fair foods, even if you have no intention of actually eating it.
Cheese curds, bacon strips, turkey legs, soft serve ice cream, pork chop on a stick, deep-fried peanut butter jelly on a stick. No deep-fried foodstuff survived the fair without at least a glance from a candidate or one of their handlers. Some candidates even managed to weave their messaging directly into their eating: Climate change-focused candidate Jay Inslee made a point of eating ice cream on a scorching day, while Andrew Yang referenced his proposal to give every American $1,000 a month while eating a $10 turkey leg. "Just imagine,” he said, “a hundred of these a month!"
This election cycle also featured, for the first time, two vegan candidates: New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Hawai‘i Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. Questions emerged about what they would eat on the trail, given the strong presence of meat and dairy at both the Iowa State Fair and in the typical campaign diet. But the Veggie Table, which has long catered to the fair’s vegetarian population, showed that it was possible for a candidate to pander to voters while adhering to their dietary restrictions — if not entirely without mishaps.
What if we thought of fair food not as an ungainly expression of America’s least dignified culinary instincts, but as a distinct regional cuisine with a clear sense of seasonality? “American festival cuisine captures what real American abundance looks like right now, in its uneasy complexity, which is why it endeavors to celebrate corn and meat and their multifarious iterations in the highest possible way,” writes Eater special correspondent Meghan McCarron. As the fair is the modern American harvest celebration, it’s little wonder that politicians hoping to telegraph their embodiment of a certain shade of American values walk tall through fairgrounds, a fried mass of corn, meat, or dairy — or all three — in each hand.
Pete Buttigieg’s Excellent Iowa State Fair Adventure
Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s communications advisor, Lis Smith, understands the ebb and flow of the news cycle like few others working in presidential campaigns today. By scheduling his arrival at the Iowa State Fair so that he’d have the venue to himself, she ensured that Buttigieg received nearly undivided attention as he ate his way through the fair, downing deep-fried Oreos, bacon-wrapped meatballs, and everything in between.
Polling in sixth place before the Iowa State Fair, Buttigieg became a fixture on late-night talk shows and social media for his gastronomical exploits. In recent weeks, the South Bend mayor has found himself in the position of being a bona fide front-runner, with the highly regarded Selzer & Co. poll — which was the first to accurately predict Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 campaign — placing him at No. 1 just before Thanksgiving.
On the Campaign Trail
The Most Important Cookout in America
For Iowa Democrats, the annual Polk County Steak Fry is somewhere between Woodstock and a cookout. With more than 12,000 operatives attending from all over the Hawkeye State, it was the single largest political organizing event in Iowa this year. Candidate after candidate delivered stump speeches as attendees feasted on grilled South Dakota strip loin — “steak fry” is an Iowa colloquialism — and sides of baked beans, potato salad, and bread.
After decades as the signature event of longtime Iowa senator and local power broker Tom Harkin, the steak fry was discontinued when he retired in 2014. That year, his seat went to a Republican; two years later, Donald Trump soundly defeated Hillary Clinton in a state that Obama won in the prior two elections. Democrats in the state hope that the revived steak fry and the resulting organizing energy will help carry them to victory in 2020.
The 18 Hottest Restaurants in Des Moines, According to 2020 Campaign Operatives
Every four years, politicians — but also campaign operatives, supporters, and journalists — descend upon Des Moines from all over the country in the months leading up to the caucuses. Surprising many first-timers, Iowa’s capital city boasts a per capita restaurant density that is higher than Los Angeles, with Iowa classics like pork tenderloin shops frequently sharing real estate with Chinese fusion pizzerias and recently arrived Australian cafes.
The Campaign Trail Road Diet: 36 Hours With Pete Buttigieg
The theatrics of campaigning for president can include highly visible corn-dog munching, conspicuous beer drinking at craft breweries, and incredibly engineered “spontaneous” handshakes with voters drinking coffee at diners. In addition to the usual dietary posturing, Pete Buttigieg, the Iowa front-runner, offered Eater unrestricted access to document three days’ worth of eating habits as he criss-crossed the Hawkeye State in his campaign bus — including a fateful encounter with a cinnamon roll in Decorah, Iowa.
The Campaign Trail Road Diet: Andrew Yang, Snacklord Supreme
Although entrepreneur Andrew Yang was the only person of color to qualify for the Democratic debate earlier this month, few people outside of the self-described #YangGang take him seriously as a candidate. In the days leading up to the debate, Eater followed the underdog as he began his first bus tour of Iowa, discovering that he never stops snacking — surprising no one that he may just be the hungriest man in the room.
With more than 300 days until the election, there are almost 1,000 meals between now and when voters head to the polls, each one an opportunity for a candidate to show that they’re more relatable, more human, and above all, more electable than the competition — or to prove, with a single bite, that they’re not.