Steak on the menu in Iowa with a big side of 2020 politics

 Polk County Steak Fry in Iowa
Kamala Harris makes her entrance to the Polk County Steak Fry accompanied by the Isiserettes youth drum line in Iowa.
(Joshua Lott / Getty Images)

The Isiserettes stomped in rhythm. They waved their hands in sync. They banged bass drums to herald the arrival of something big.

The Des Moines youth drum line provided a raucous soundtrack for then-Sen. Barack Obama and his supporters as they followed the kids onto a grassy field to greet thousands of Iowa Democrats hungry for a steak lunch and presidential politics.

The Illinois senator’s carefully orchestrated entrance showed off his fledging campaign’s organizational skills and hinted at the energy that would propel him to a win in the state’s primary caucuses some three months later in 2008.


“The sound is incredible. You could just feel it firing everybody up,” recalled Rob Barron, a top staffer to former Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the event’s onetime namesake. To lock down the drum corps this year, Barron said, “I would assume there was lobbying for months prior.”

2007 Steak Fry
Then-Sen. Barack Obama at the Steak Fry in 2007, a few months before his win in the Iowa caucuses propelled him to the Democratic presidential nomination.
(David Lienemann / Getty Images)

On Saturday, the Isiserettes were out stomping again, this time to usher in Kamala Harris and her phalanx of supporters. Behind them, the California senator clapped and shimmied to the beat, even pulled off some step choreography, to celebrate her arrival to the iconic Iowa Democratic shindig known as the Steak Fry.

It is one of a few Iowa political events, along with the summer Wing Ding in northeastern Iowa and the Fall Gala in Des Moines, that have transformed from folksy local gatherings to jam-packed pageants where attendance by presidential candidates is just about mandatory.

Their growing import tracks with the evolution of the Iowa caucuses themselves — once an afterthought, then the catalyst of Jimmy Carter’s presidential bid and now the nucleus of presidential primary action as the first voting state.

On the campaign trail, Elizabeth Warren rarely mentions her two decades teaching at Harvard, preferring to dwell on her humble roots in Oklahoma. Her path to the White House may depend on which version of her voters accept — prairie populist or Ivy League elitist.

“A lot of things associated with the caucuses are turning into spectacles,” said David Yepsen, former chief political writer with the Des Moines Register. “There’s kind of a rock concert psychology — you go because there is a crowd, to see and be seen, to be a part of it.”

Despite the soupy heat and a midafternoon shower, the gathering had the earnest enthusiasm of summer camp. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s team entertained supporters at a pre-Steak Fry rally with a castle-shaped bounce house and an ice cream truck. Fans of Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Ind., mayor, played cornhole and listened to a live band perform soft-rock standbys such as Van Morrison’s “Moondance.”

With 17 presidential candidates, 12,000 attendees and more than 10,000 steaks sizzling on the grill in a sprawling Des Moines park, it was the largest iteration yet of the decades-old event that has roots as a modest fundraiser on a family farm.

The carnival-like atmosphere belies the serious stakes for Democratic contenders, hoping to translate the festive goodwill into enduring momentum.

For candidates, it’s a campaign opportunity with maximum efficiency.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg works the grill during the Polk County Steak Fry in Des Moines.
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg works the grill during the Polk County Steak Fry in Des Moines.
(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

These events “gather people who are politically active and interested and intensely motivated to participate in the caucuses,” said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines. “So if you are a presidential candidate, these events deliver an audience to you.”

The Steak Fry’s original hosts were Joan and Gary Kiernan, who held a fundraiser for Harkin’s first congressional bid in 1972. They grilled — no, they didn’t fry — steaks for a couple of dozen guests and charged $2 a ticket. And although Harkin lost that race, they reprised the gathering in 1974 for another Harkin campaign, this one successful.

By the 1980s, Harkin had moved to the Senate and taken over hosting duties. In 1991, he used the Harkin Steak Fry to launch his presidential campaign, outlining his liberal vision before an audience seated on hay bales. Eventual Democratic nominee Bill Clinton dropped by in 1992, starting the trend of presidential candidates and aspiring politicos flocking to the event to curry favor with caucus voters and their influential senator.

In 2014, Clinton was again a featured guest, undeterred by the vegan diet he adopted after a quadruple-bypass surgery 10 years earlier.

“He was still out there flipping steaks with these guys who had been flipping steaks for 40 years for Harkin,” said Barron, who tried to pry Clinton away from the grill to move the line along.

“His diet changed, but he’s still that great talker,” he said.

When Harkin announced plans to retire after the 2014 midterm, the Steak Fry was to retire with him. Bruce Braley, an Iowa congressman who was running to succeed Harkin, had his own signature event — Bruce, Blues and BBQ — and the assumption was he would carry the torch once he won the Senate seat. That fizzled when Braley lost his race to Republican Joni Ernst.

The Polk County Democrats revived the event in 2017, with Harkin’s blessing.

Bill Clinton at 2003 Harkin Steak Fry
Former President Clinton speaks at the 2003 Harkin Steak Fry, joined by Sen. Tom Harkin, wife Ruth Harkin and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, from left.
(Charlie Niebergall / Associated Press)

“Somebody called it the ‘Coachella of the caucuses,’ and that’s what we’re going for,” said Sean Bagniewski, a co-organizer of the event who’s also the chairman of the Polk County Democrats.

Most of the crowd Saturday indulged in the signature meal, a slab of steak and a scoop apiece of baked beans and macaroni; vegan options were on offer in a much shorter queue.

Every Democratic presidential candidate spoke at the event on Saturday except for former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, who skipped the festivities to attend his daughter’s wedding — which Bagniewski acknowledged was “a perfectly acceptable reason.”

Staffers at Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s pre-gathering passed on the flashier trappings, such as live music. Instead, they held quickie organizing training sessions and sent their volunteers, many wearing glitter in Warren’s signature green, into the crowd, clipboards and canvassing scripts in hand.

Candidates stood on a stage decorated with hay bales and stray pumpkins to give truncated versions of their stump speech before a sea of Democrats in folding chairs. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker played up his family ties to Iowa, while Biden was quick to remind the crowd that he was no newcomer to the scene.

“I started off here when it was the Tom Harkin Steak Fry,” Biden said. “Tom and I served together a long time.”

Cory Booker’s campaign manager says the New Jersey senator might soon quit the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The presidential hopefuls also spent significant time roaming the grounds, and were buttonholed by supporters and skeptics alike.

Even those too young to vote got one-on-one attention. Thronged by supporters and adopting the soothing tones of a parent reading a bedtime story, Harris wove descriptions of Los Angeles, where she lives, to tout her plan to tackle climate change during an encounter with wide-eyed 9-year-old Silas Erwin of Des Moines.

“She said that in a place called Los Angeles, if you looked up, the sky was brown,” Silas said. “Then they started paying attention to greenhouse gases and carbon emissions, and now if you look up at it, it’s blue. I don’t quite remember all of the other stuff.”

Susan Matos, wearing a Buttigieg T-shirt, spoke to Harris about the exorbitant cost of her son’s mental health care. Harris listened intently and offered a book recommendation before acknowledging Matos’ shirt.

“I like Pete, don’t worry about it,” Harris said.

“That’s who gave me the ticket!” Matos explained. She later said she was drawn to Buttigieg’s youth and energetic staff, but said Harris’ answer on mental health impressed her.

Some candidates, particularly Buttigieg, bought blocks of tickets to pack the park with supporters to demonstrate campaign strength.

“They’re kind of the first tests of organizing prowess,” said Barbara Trish, professor of public affairs at Grinnell College in Iowa. “It’s your ability to get people there.”

Dave Nagle, a former Iowa congressman and onetime chair of the state Democratic Party, said the goal of the campaigns is to leave an impression that slowly grows into firmer commitments of support as the February caucuses near.

“With the Steak Fry, all you want to do is create a buzz,” Nagle said.

And if a candidate wanted to skip the affair?

“It isn’t fatal,” Nagle said. “But it isn’t wise.”