Every hour, thousands of people walk up and down the Grand Concourse at the Iowa State Fair. Near the curb of this busy street is the Des Moines Register's Political Soapbox, a small unassuming stage surrounded by hay bales. This is where invited presidential candidates speak for 20 minutes about anything they want.
Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee makes a joke about his frequent use of Pizza Ranch restaurants for campaign stops. Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley starts his speech by saying it doesn't make sense to be a presidential candidate if you won't do a question and answer period after a speech. During Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee's Q&A, he responds to a critical question about his time as a U.S. Senator when he was the only Republican to vote against the Iraq war.
After Governor Chafee leaves the stage, Des Moines resident Jodie Parks asks him directly her own questions about affordable child care. After the governor leaves, Parks says she is registered to vote, but like with the last presidential election, she may not show up to the ballot box. "If they're not addressing the issues that I think are best, then I guess I feel I don't really need to vote because nobody there is going to help us," says Parks.
Parks lives three blocks from the fairgrounds, but this is the first year she's come to the Political Soapbox. She's also become a political activist for the first time through the group Make it Work.
The presence of candidates at the fair is also having an effect on voter registration. In the Varied Industries building, the Secretary of State's booth lures people in with a presidential straw poll. Secretary Paul Pate says they see a surge of visitors when candidates are on the fairground, especially last weekend when there were seven. "We can tell you minute by minute, hour by hour, however you wanna know how people are voting," says Pate. "That sometimes reflects how they're doing when they go out to the soapbox, and they actually speak at a fair or when they're here at the fair working."
Secretary Pate says casting a vote in this poll encourages Iowans to register to vote for a real election, which they can do at this booth.
"There are a lot of people who are changing their voter registration address cause we are a very mobile society. They're those that we're reminding them that they can vote absentee. And very candidly, I remind them there are school board elections coming up here in September, which have a dismal dismal voter participation."
Secretary Pate makes no apologies for using the glamor of a presidential race to get voters to the polls for city, county, and state elections. With 17 candidates visiting during the run of fair, he's likely to see a few more surges of registrations by the time they pack it up Sunday night. Until then, Iowans still have time to ask the potential next president of the United States any question they want.