Iowa voters value national security, but when Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush’s debate over Iraq fell flat, Donald Trump bulldozed through the opening.
DES MOINES, Iowa — Karen Tuttle stood with her arms crossed in the shade of a tree next to the Pioneer Livestock Pavilion at the Iowa State Fair, watching as a crush of eager fans, curious onlookers, and swarming media slowly carried Hillary Clinton away under a tangle of microphones and camera booms.
“I scoop poop in the pavilion. We’d love to have her help scoop poop,” she offered, straight-faced, “because she’s spreading it out here for sure.”
Tuttle, a registered Independent, also rejected Jeb Bush, who visited the fair the previous day.
“I think we’ve had enough Bushes in office. Bushes sent my kids to Iraq,” she said. “They sent my kids overseas and they’ve done things that are good over there, and then they haven’t followed through...They get things started and now we’ve got ISIS.”
Who’s “they”? “All of ’em,” she answered — Bush and Clinton, Republican and Democrat.
Tuttle’s son, who recently retired as an Army lieutenant colonel, was part of the first wave of U.S. soldiers to enter Kuwait during the Gulf War, then trained Iraqi soldiers during the Iraq War. Her daughter is an Army reservist nurse, but is eager to get out, concerned about recent deadly shootings at military installations.
Asked which candidate she’s supporting, she said, “I’m liking the things that [Donald] Trump is saying because we have too much whitewash.”
“My son said something recently that was very unlike my son, and I said, ‘Douglas! You know we don’t talk like that about people!’ and he says, ‘I know, Mom, but I’ve had to be so politically correct for the past 25 years, sometimes I just have to say it like it is,’” she recounted. “I think [Trump’s] just opening avenues of conversation, and I think that’s great.”
First in the Nation
Tuttle and her family, split between Iowa and neighboring Missouri, have worked the two-week fair for years. More than 1 million people attend, visiting nearly 600 exhibits and scarfing up funnel cakes, deep-fried Twinkies, and half-pound turkey legs. And in the decades since Iowa became the first state in the nation to cast primary votes for the next commander-in-chief, it has become a presidential prerequisite to campaign here.
In turn, the state’s voters immerse themselves in national politics, discussing the merits of the Iran deal while washing down pork chops with iced tea. Over three days and nearly 1,000 miles crisscrossing the state, Defense One talked with dozens of voters at events featuring seven of the 2016 field’s 22 candidates. Echoing broader state and nationwide polls, most said national security was one of the top issues, if not the most important.
Yet many voters seemed disenchanted with establishment candidates who brought national-security policy experience and boilerplate talking points. In this political environment, Bush and Clinton’s recent focus — “Who lost Iraq?” — had a detached, think-tank feel that was thoroughly drowned out by the unscripted, Times-Square-screen entertainment that is Trump.
In Iowa, Bush defended the foreign-policy decisions of his brother, former president George W. Bush, and tried to blame Obama and Clinton, as secretary of state, for prematurely withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. One man in the crowd at Bush’s soapbox speech on Friday was having none of it. “Your brother signed the deal!” he shouted.
The following day, Clinton responded at a press gaggle that began with a visit to a corral holding a brown-and-white-spotted calf.
“I find it somewhat curious that Jeb Bush is doubling down on defending his brother’s actions in Iraq, but if he’s going to do that, he should present the entire picture,” she said, noting that George W. set the date for the U.S. withdrawal and she and administration officials couldn’t persuade the Iraqi government otherwise. “I can only wonder whether he either did not know that or thought that other people would not be reminded of that.”
Meanwhile, there was Trump, who buzzed Clinton’s appearance at the pork-chop-on-a-stick stand in a helicopter emblazoned with his name in large white letters, and later offered an in-your-face response to Bush.
“He said the United States has to prove to Iraq that we have skin in the game,” Trump said. “We’ve spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives lost, wounded warriors who I love, all over the place…I think it may be one of the dumbest statements I’ve ever heard.”
On Sunday, Trump took to “Meet the Press” to reiterate that the U.S. should go into Iraq and seize all its oil. He declined to say how many American ground troops he’d send to do the job, but he did reveal the source of his military advice: “Well, I watch the shows.” But, as infeasible as his plan to give the proceeds of the oil seizure to veterans is, Trump at least consistently mentions them. (Bush unveiled his plan for veterans days later.)
How is all this playing with voters? According to a Fox News poll conducted Aug. 11-13 and released Sunday, 52 percent of registered voters nationwide think Trump is unqualified to be commander in chief, more so than any other Republican candidate. Bush is seen as most qualified, with 67 percent saying he is “very” or “somewhat qualified,” compared to 62 percent for Clinton. Yet in a CNN/ORC poll conducted Aug. 13-16, during Bush’s Iowa visit, Trump was the leading pick among GOP candidates, garnering 24 percent to Bush’s second-place 13 percent. With miles to go before Election Day, it's too soon to tell whether these numbers will translate to votes, but Iowa voters indicate that lack of qualification is not a disqualification.
On Friday at the fair, Dixie and Jack Taylor patiently waited for Bush to emerge, entourage in tow, from a building. The Taylors, who own a 1,000-acre corn and bean farm in southern Iowa, were camping at the fairgrounds.
“We don’t have a guy yet; there are too many out there,” Dixie laughed. When asked who she may be leaning toward, she said, “The Donald is fun.” They identify as Democrats, but she said her party’s candidates haven’t so visible. “Other than Hillary. She’s on all the time.”
She said national security is important, “even for Iowa.” “We feel pretty secure here,” she said. “But we know when you watch the news now, anything can happen, anywhere, and does.”
Later, Kris Terrell stood behind her husband Tim in his motorized cart as Bush gave his soapbox speech. They didn’t come to the fair to see him but decided to listen. Tim, who served as an E-4 petty officer in the Navy from 1990 to 1995, still suffers from a knee injury he incurred on duty.
Kris served in the Marine Corps in the 1980s, leaving as a corporal after working in the Corps’ Arlington, Va., offices. “It’s still difficult for a woman veteran to seek out women’s care at the VA,” she said — particularly in rural areas like much of Iowa.
“We’re both veterans, so I think it’s important that we’re safe in our own homes so we don’t have to watch over our backs and worry that we’re gonna come to the state fair and something’s gonna happen,” Tim said. “It’s like the recruiting centers — we shouldn’t have to worry about that kind of stuff happening on our land.”
Tim said he’s leaning toward Trump. “I like how he’s no-nonsense, he’s very vocal, and says the way it is and that’s kind of the way I am,” he said. He acknowledges Trump sometimes says things, “to get people’s attention and get them riled up,” but said he wasn’t offended by Trump’s July pronouncement that Arizona Sen. John McCain’s time as a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war disqualified him as a war hero.
Last year, McCain helped push through a massive bill meant to reduce wait times at the Department of Veterans Affairs. “Well, I haven’t seen much difference since they passed that, to be honest,” Tim said. “During an election, they’re like, ‘Go go go, veterans!’” he said. “‘We’re gonna help them all!’ Soon as it’s over, we’re forgotten.”
On Iraq, he said, “I don’t know if there’s any good way to end it, to be honest…Either we’re gonna have to just get out and try and stay away or we’re gonna have to go and take over. There’s no happy medium.”
Still, he was not concerned about Trump’s qualifications for commander in chief. “If he can run a multibillion-dollar company,” he said, “he can run the military.”
Standing nearby, Gary Nervig called Bush his current pick even though “a lot of his stuff is kind of boilerplate.” He paused as the national anthem crackled over the loudspeaker and the whole fair froze.
Continuing, he disparaged current U.S. foreign policy as ineffective containment. “I think we have to actually defeat ISIS, we can’t just contain them.” Russia, he said, is “tough for anybody,” but the only thing President Vladimir Putin understands is strength. “It’s unfortunate ’cause we did that in the ’80s and it cost us a lot of money, which we don’t really have,” he said. Many of the candidates who demand “rebuild the military” don’t acknowledge this cost. “That’s politics,” he shrugged.
As for how to balance today’s threats and defense spending, he said, “If I knew the answer to that I’d be running for president.”
After Bush moved on, Iowa Republican Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley donned red aprons to work the tables at the Iowa Pork Producers tent.
“Thank you for your service,” Ernst said to Vietnam veteran Charles Fenimore, refilling his iced tea. “Thank you for your service,” he replied to Ernst, the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate.
Fenimore was a sergeant in the Air Force, providing ground support south of Saigon in 1968 and 1969. “Veterans should be treated and get the health care they’re supposed to be getting,” he said. “The ones coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, with the IEDs and explosions on ’em … it’s a lot tougher now than it was back in Vietnam.”
Fenimore supports Trump, and brushed the comments about McCain. “John McCain has done nothing for the veterans in Congress…They fired one or two people out of all the VA medical centers. It’s still a mess. And Trump has come out and said that.”
“I think we need somebody that’s kind of new and refreshing, that’s been in business and has not been in Congress,” he continued. “Too many people tell us the same thing, and nothing gets done.”
Hours later and 100 miles north at the historic Surf Ballroom, Clinton and three other Democratic candidates gathered for the annual Iowa Democratic Wing Ding. The raucous crowd ate wings in front of murals of pounding waves as Clinton hit back on the email scandal and Benghazi and Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., reminded the crowd that he, unlike Clinton, voted against the Iraq War.
Judy Schmidt sat in her wheelchair behind a black curtain that was blocking the stage where former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley was giving his pitch. She said she’s voting for Clinton: “She is the best prepared to be president.”
To her, the most important issues are the economy and foreign policy. “We hear about China’s economy going down the tubes, we hear about Iran and Iraq and ISIS and terrorism.” But she doesn’t support American troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria. “We have to work with the moderate Muslims — they’re our only hope.”
“Republicans want us to be isolated, they want to go back in history, but we can’t,” she said. “We have to live in the now and move forward.”
On Saturday, Janet Flynn stood in line in a highlighter-orange mesh tank top, shielding her eyes from the glare reflecting off the deep-fried-Twinkie stand.
“I think it’s a dog-and-pony show,” she said of the candidates’ trek at the State Fair. “I don’t really have positive feelings with our presidency or politicians at this point.” A self-declared Independent, she said, “If I’m going to vote, it’s gonna be Hillary. Only because I liked Bill.”
“We’re getting more in the hole, money issues,” she said. “We’re always at war, we’re not out for peace. It just seems like we’re stirring up — and we need to concentrate on America.”
As for qualities she looks for in a candidate, she joked: “Well, Donald Trump would be money. If he could spend his own, that’d be nice.”
Karen Tuttle, the state-fair poop-scooper, said candidates need to let the past go and present their plan for now. She’s had veterans in her family since the American Revolution — “in every single war, skirmish, whatever.” But when asked whether she’s confident in Trump’s abilities as commander in chief, she stares a moment.
“Probably,” she said. “I don’t feel like we have much respect for the military now, and I think he does. I like that.”
“He does need a little filter,” she laughed. “But why should he have to apologize?”