AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The Iowa State Fair is a mandatory stop for presidential candidates, and it inspires all sorts of questions like, what will each candidate eat? Or will they stop by animal barns or go on rides? Well, NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has another question. How much do these fair visits actually help Iowa voters?
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: If you're trying to meet your favorite candidate at the state fair, you might have to fight for it. Candidates like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders don't so much wander the fair as plow through it surrounded by a mass of reporters and campaign staff.
KURTZLEBEN: The centerpiece of all this is the Des Moines Register Soapbox, a small stage with about 50 folding chairs in front of it tucked into the lawn in front of the souvenir shop. If you've seen candidates speaking to state fair crowds, it was probably at the soapbox.
BERNIE SANDERS: Thank you, Iowa.
KURTZLEBEN: Nancy and Dean Urban, from the town of Fairfield, looked at the schedule while the stage was quiet on Sunday morning. Nancy was surprised at something.
NANCY URBAN: I saw it on TV, and it looked much bigger (laughter).
KURTZLEBEN: A tight space and a mob of people, a lot of whom are reporters. It makes you wonder, are these fair visits helpful to Iowans or are they just a way for candidates to prove that they too enjoy pork chops? I asked Timothy Hagle, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. He confesses he's never been to the soapbox.
TIMOTHY HAGLE: Actually, no. I try to avoid the crowds when I can.
KURTZLEBEN: Hagle says that, yes, the fair is a way for candidates to show that they can connect with the supposed average voter. But the fair is a two-way street. It also helps voters stumble onto candidates they might not have considered.
HAGLE: But there are going to be a lot of people that are there that will say, oh, well, hey, we're here at the fair, we're enjoying ourselves. Oh, by the way, there's something going on over at the soapbox. Well, let's check that out for a few minutes and see what's going on.
KURTZLEBEN: The soapbox is a sort of equalizer. Everyone, popular or lesser-known, gets 20 minutes to speak and take questions. Nancy Urban said she wanted to see one of the lower-polling candidates.
URBAN: I'm excited to see Tom Steyer. Is that his name? Yes, I'm excited to hear what he has to say because he's a late person entering the race. And I just want to see what he - you know, I know he has a lot of money, but what makes him any different?
KURTZLEBEN: For other fairgoers like Emilie Harris, just checking out candidates isn't the point. She and a co-worker from the Iowa Caucus for Kids campaign sat patiently in the Sunday morning rain after full days at the soapbox Friday and Saturday.
EMILIE HARRIS: So we're actively working while we're here. We try to capture them on their stump speeches if they're saying anything about kids, but we also try to get a question in if we can.
KURTZLEBEN: It's not just Iowans who come listen, though. Mary Breiner and her husband were here from Berkeley, Calif. Listening to the speeches gave Mary perspective she doesn't get watching the news.
MARY BREINER: Everybody looks better live than they do on TV. Andrew Yang - he's very funny. He interacted with the audience asking questions. He was great in terms of engagement, and that doesn't come off on TV at all.
KURTZLEBEN: This brings up an important point - seeing so many candidates in person may be a novelty for out-of-staters like Breiner. But Iowan Nancy Urban, for example, was just figuring out who she hadn't seen anyway after months of candidate town halls and bus tours with stops in her town.
URBAN: Everybody comes there. And so we've - and right in our front yard, I mean, just like right there. So, I mean, where else can you go that they come to you?
KURTZLEBEN: It's not ho-hum for everyone. Somewhere in the Sanders crowd, a teenage girl freaked out over getting to shake the senator's hand.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Mom, I got a handshake.
KURTZLEBEN: There's still some excitement in these candidate visits for some voters, even if by the February caucuses many will have had enough.
Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News, Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.