The Iowa caucuses are the nation’s first presidential nominating contests, and they carry real weight for Democrats: Seven of the past nine winners have gone on to represent the party in the general election. Politics in the Hawkeye State demand a particularly folksy touch, so candidates make multiple runs in the year leading up to the caucuses, holding rallies on back porches, eating corn dogs, and taking bus tours from county to county, hoping to propel themselves to the nomination. For decades, the most important stop for Democrats on the Iowa circuit was a cookout — the Harkin Steak Fry, the single largest annual gathering of Democrats in the state of Iowa.
In 2014, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin retired after 30 years in the U.S. Senate (and 10 in the House of Representatives), hosting a final Steak Fry headlined by the Clintons in the runup to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Harkin’s seat was captured that year by Republican Joni Ernst, and two years later, the Republican candidate for president, Donald J. Trump, received over 50 percent of the votes in the state for the first time since Ronald Reagan. So in 2017, local Democrats revived the annual cookout as the Polk County Steak Fry. This year’s steak fry, which took place last weekend, saw more than 12,000 attendees, each paying $35 to eat and watch the candidates make their stump speeches, one after another, on stage.
The act of bringing people together for a barbecue may seem basic — thousands happen across the country every summer weekend. But the sense of camaraderie and friendship that happens with half a dozen people in a backyard can scale. Back in 1972, when local Democrats Joan and Gary Kiernan hosted a fundraiser for Harkin’s first congressional run, they invited just 40 people, and tickets were $2. The idea was to have a few friends over to raise some money; Joan bought the steaks from the local meat market and made the salad herself.
Harkin came up short in 1972, but the Kiernans hosted another for his successful run for the House two years later. The Kiernan Steak Fry continued bi-annually until 1984, when Harkin ran for U.S. Senate and took over the event, making it an annual fundraiser during his three-decade tenure. It only became a must-stop for Democratic presidential hopefuls in 1991, when Harkin used it to announce his own run for president; he was knocked out of the race, but the following summer, Bill Clinton came back to kiss the ring, and went on to win Iowa and the presidency later that fall. Al Gore and John Kerry came to pay homage during their runs, and in 2006, Harkin invited freshman senator Barack Obama as a special guest. Obama returned a year later as a presidential candidate with thousands of supporters in tow, propelling him to a surprise victory in the state caucuses en route to the presidency.
The steak fry is so important precisely because it doubles as the biggest single organizing event for Democrats in the state. This year, 17 of the 19 candidates still in the running — the most ever for this event — and their supporters set up camps outside the fry with various activations to drum up morale and sign up more volunteers. Joe Biden’s camp featured a fire truck, bouncy castle, and DIY pancake bar, luring prospective voters with even more food at a food event. Kamala Harris danced her way into the steak fry with the Isiserettes, the same troupe that heralded Obama’s arrival in 2007. Elizabeth Warren hung around the event for two hours and participated in over a thousand selfies, according to her campaign. Pete Buttigieg’s supporters made a show of force, 1,500 people strong marching with the candidate ahead of a planned four-day bus tour meant to solidify the millennial candidate’s momentum across the state.
With more than 12,000 attendees, it was a far cry from the days when Joan Kiernan would go to the local butcher to feed everyone. Instead, the organizers tapped Hy-Vee, a supermarket chain based in Des Moines with $10 billion in sales a year, to provide 8,000 8-ounce strip loin steaks (from South Dakota), 2,300 chicken breasts (from Nebraska), and 700 black bean burger patties (from a vegan science lab). The meals are served from a central food tent, with a side of baked beans, potato salad, and bread. Food trucks serving ice cream, apple pastries, and local craft beer flank the main tent.
The presidential candidates have a hand in the food, too. The phrase “steak fry” has always been a misnomer — an Iowa colloquialism. They were grilled then, as they are now. Joe Biden, who has run for president before, is no stranger to the ritual of flipping a couple of steaks for the cameras, and playfully posed for his photographer. First-time candidate Kamala Harris peppered the Hy-Vee rep with questions, like “How many times do you flip it?” and “What temperature do you want it?” Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and Tulsi Gabbard also took turns at the grill, as did Pete Buttigieg, who played bartender for a few minutes at the beer truck, even taking a swig of Confluence’s blue corn lager before making his way to the stage.
As attendees feasted, the candidates took turns making their case to voters. Sure, there are vast policy differences, from Warren’s wealth tax to Yang’s Freedom Dividend. But everything was amicable. After all, everyone was a fellow Democrat.
By the time all the steaks, chicken, and veggie burgers were consumed, a new Des Moines Register poll was out: Elizabeth Warren was now the Democratic frontrunner in the state, the first major shakeup of the 2020 election. Buttigieg left for his four-day bus tour. Cory Booker announced a 10-day fundraising blitz. Their supporters had their marching orders, too. The battle was on.