‘I love the theatrics’: meet the tourists traveling to see the 2020 US election unfold

Adam Gabbattin Des Moines, Iowa
Photograph: Charlie Neibergall/AP

For many people, a vacation to the US means heading up New York’s Empire State Building, descending into the Grand Canyon in Arizona or splashing about in the Pacific Ocean in California.

Some, however, are choosing to whet their appetites differently, by instead traveling to Iowa, in the middle of the US, to witness the presidential primary elections in person.

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“I’m kind of too depressed by UK politics,” said Edward Gray, a 21-year-old law student from Essex. “So I thought I might as well come and be depressed by US politics.”

To that end, Gray committed to spending a month in Iowa, along with 24 others. They had booked through Politrip, a bespoke travel company that charges $1,200 a person to ship them around Democratic campaign events.

Iowa has an outsized importance in selecting a party’s nominee for president. It is the first state to vote in the primary process, and a good – or bad – performance here can make or break presidential campaigns. This year, more than 20 presidential hopefuls are crisscrossing Iowa, kissing babies, eating bad food and sitting on tractors, all with the hope of winning the February 2020 caucus.

Audience members raise their hands to question Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer as he speaks at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“I kind of just love the theatrics of a US election. I like my UK politics, but I just find elections fascinating and [in the UK] they only go on for like a month, whereas over here it’s, like, nonstop,” Gray said.

“I thought the opportunity to come out here and possibly meet a couple of candidates was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss.”

Gray ended up seeing 23 out of 24 major candidates – many of those at the Iowa state fair, where the Guardian met some of the mostly British and Irish holidaymakers. The fair, a sprawling exhibition of livestock, fairground rides, bars and deep-fried food served on a stick, is a must-visit for presidential hopefuls. Over the course of a week the majority of the 24 Democratic candidates made an appearance, along with less-heralded independent contenders and Bill Weld, a Republican challenger to Donald Trump.

Politrip is the brainchild of Paddy Brown, a Northern Ireland-based PhD student and American politics enthusiast.

Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris flips a pork chop at the Pork Tent at the Iowa State Fair. Photograph: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

According to Brown, its a mixed bunch of people on the trip.

“A couple of lawyers have come out, a couple of people working in retail, and a lot in between,” Brown said as he hung out at the “soapbox” stage, an area of the fair reserved for presidential candidates to attempt to charm the crowd: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren spoke over the weekend.

Many of the political vacationers end up volunteering for campaigns – they can express their preferred candidate in advance – with people knocking on doors in support of candidates such as the New Jersey senator Cory Booker and Warren.

“There’s a couple of people just working summer jobs trying to figure out their next steps, and a lot of people actually who want to do this to get campaign cycle experience on their CV,” said Brown.

An attendee casts a corn kernel supporting former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, in a straw poll during the Iowa State Fair. Photograph: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

One of the most intriguing aspects of the 2020 Democratic race is the number of candidates – many of whom have, to put it generously, little chance of winning. As Brown and the Guardian chatted, a slight man wearing black jeans took to the soapbox stage.

“Who’s that?” said one woman.

“His name is … Joe Sestak,” her partner replied, reading haltingly from a pamphlet.

It was indeed Sestak, a 67-year-old former congressman for Pennsylvania who announced his campaign for the nomination in June. In a recent Economist/YouGov poll of 1,500 Americans, Sestak was the first choice of 0% of respondents. (The margin of error was 2.6%.)

The higher-profile candidates are, understandably, more of a draw.

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren visits the Iowa State Fair on August 10 in Des Moines, Iowa. Photograph: Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images

Etienne Seymour, from Southampton, was wearing a T-shirt in support of Warren, who is currently vying with Sanders for second place in the polls. Seymour, 22, had spent days knocking on doors touting Warren’s policies, and had also been deployed to cheer for the senator at rallies.

“I got a hug from her. I’ve had two now,” Seymour said.

To pay for the trip, Seymour had taken a job at John Lewis during her summer break from Nottingham University, where she studies international relations. Seymour hopes the experience will boost her CV – but she was also keen to sample some of Iowa’s more unusual offerings.

“I want to see the butter cow,” she said – a cow modelled from butter which has become an Iowa state fair staple.

“And I do want to try a corn dog.”