I arrived in Iowa slightly over a year ago to begin my first year at Drake University. I chose Drake because of its proximity and involvement with the Iowa Caucuses. Now that the first-in-the-nation (for at least one party) caucuses are less than four months away, the Iowa political arena has begun to heat up. To celebrate this sign of the times for the first time, I did what I believe any politically curious Iowan ought to– get out there, meet some local and national candidates, and talk to other attendees to hear their thoughts. My first stop was The Fox & Friends “Breakfast with Friends” segment at Machine Shed in Urbandale, featuring an appearance from Vivek Ramaswamy.
I am, by absolutely no means, a morning person. Even less so, I am not an early-morning person. However, I had never before had the opportunity to meet an individual actively running for president, let alone someone receiving national media attention on the level that Vivek Ramaswamy was. So, this Friday in September, I woke up earlier than most alarm clocks to head northwest to Urbandale.
I arrived at Machine Shed at roughly 4:30 a.m. to find several dozen others already there. I was equally surprised that there were that many people there, considering the hour, and that few people there, considering the rising popularity of the special guest to come. I had never been to any of the 6 locations of Machine Shed Restaurant throughout the Midwest. Still, upon entry into the farmhouse-styled building, I was greeted with a commercial monument to everything related to farming, country, rustic, and American living. I would be surprised if there were a better venue for this event in the Des Moines metro. As I walked through the gift shop, otherwise known as what I dubbed “The Farmer’s HomeGoods,” the welcoming smell of hot coffee greeted me. I noted the wall of cameras, microphones, and wires at the end of the dining room, which reminded me that a media giant was in town. I settled into a booth with some other Drake students, ready to see what an Iowa political event is about.
Before the cameras began rolling, however, I needed to experience what I understood to be the stuff of legends: the food at Machine Shed. I couldn’t wait. The choice of what to eat proved incredibly difficult, but I knew after being counseled by my Iowa-native roommates that a cinnamon roll was essential. Also, I was craving some quality pancakes on this particular day, so I ordered those too. The kitchen and wait staff did an incredible job all morning of serving attendees promptly as well as preparing the food seen on TV. Soon after, my food arrived. Mind you; I’ve had my fair share of physically large cinnamon rolls that are local legends. However, this one was special. It might have been the best cinnamon roll I have ever eaten. Given that cinnamon rolls are the most popular item at Machine Shed, and many visiting politicians have tried them during their visits, I can confirm at least one claim these politicians make on the trial is true: their cinnamon rolls are incredible.
While eating my food, I noticed the other individuals attending this event. Intentionally standing out from the crowd in suits and ties were several state representatives looking to score some brownie points with the conservative crowd at the restaurant and those tuning in from their homes. Also making rounds around the dining room were members of the Westside Conservative Club, plus some individuals running for local school boards. Overall, the crowd was almost entirely senior and white, with a slight male majority. Despite the monogamous crowd, a diverse range of merchandise was worn. I noted several hats, pins, and shirts with Vivek Ramaswamy’s “Truth.” line; while others wore DeSantis gear, a group of women wore “Moms for Liberty” shirts, and there was an expected spread of Trump shirts and MAGA hats. Eventually, the dining room filled, and some other people joined me and other Drake students at our wooden booth. A woman who was a very enthusiastic supporter of Vivek first joined us and showed me several pictures of her with him from the past few months. Later, we were joined by a Drake alum wearing a Hawaiian shirt that would’ve made the late Jimmy Buffet proud. He told me he wasn’t sure which Republican candidate he would caucus for. He was curious to hear from Mr. Ramaswamy after learning of him, as so many others did, during the first GOP Primary Debate on August 23, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. With these two seasoned Iowa politics veterans seated at the same table as me, I was very quickly introduced to another aspect of Iowa political events: The intense talkativeness of the attendees.
If I ever feel like my life has no meaning, the first place I will go to is any political event in Iowa. Notably, the woman at my table would constantly ask the other Drake students and me about our lives like we were the ones running for president (Which, speaking for myself, is at least a possibility someday, so stay tuned). She also kept track of all of this information by writing it on the back of her receipt, which I assumed was just to keep track between us, but I found it highly odd nonetheless. She was incredibly lovely, however, and her support level for Vivek was commendable. But now that the people and the food had arrived, it was time for Fox News to cut away from its flagship studio in New York City to the political, cornfield-filled paradise that is Iowa, and the show had begun.
The producer frantically excited the crowd as he trailed a cameraman filming Fox & Friends’ Ainsley Earhardt as she walked into the dining room to welcome the world to Iowa. Throughout the entire morning’s worth of events, I took notice of the producer. He always had at least one (wired) earbud in, was constantly talking to others on his phone to the extent that I have no idea how his phone battery wasn’t dead already, and was always directing traffic in a simultaneously urgent and calm way. In my fugue early morning state, I contemplated that he was a metaphor for politicians and media coming to Iowa during a caucus cycle. The margin of error for him was little to none, the hour early and the calls aplenty, yet he stood tall and remained composed the entire time and would energize the crowd any time the cameras were on. The phrase “the show must go on” has never been more apparent.
The segments live from Machine Shed began with Ainsley Earhardt showing off the restaurant’s signature dishes and then serving them to attendees. Throughout the event, Ainsley stayed in constant interaction with the crowd, my personal favorite of which was a series of interactions with a gentleman sitting near me, who initially tried to take a selfie with her when she walked in to begin the segment but despite many attempts, could not manage to take the photo. Later on in the event, when Ainsley returned to his corner, she noticed him watching the live feed of the show on his phone (I will add that he was not wearing headphones or earbuds, and I could hear the volume from my booth, roughly 6-8 feet away). Nevertheless, the man was ecstatic to see himself live on air, and Ainsley’s co-hosts in New York loved his “comeback.” Ainsley also interviews attendees about their current political concerns, striking up conversations regarding inflation, the economy, education, parent’s rights within schools, immigration, and border security. She also spent time seated on a tall metal chair at the front of the room, in front of the array of lights and cameras, delivering that morning’s news, such as President Biden departing to India for the G-20 Summit in New Dehli, India, and climate protesters interrupting a women’s singles semifinal U.S. Open match. The remark she made during the show that got the crowd's biggest applause was her deep appreciation for Iowa, citing the friendliness of locals she had interacted with over the years. I could see why. The crowd loved her from the minute she walked in until the show's end, with frequent applause (not always directed by the producer) and a beaming admiration for those she talked to. Eventually, the moment everyone was waiting for came; Vivek Ramaswamy arrived, and I had successfully achieved my Iowa bucket list goal of seeing a presidential candidate.
My first impression of Vivek was that he was every bit as charismatic as he appeared to be on TV. He received another big round of cheers from the audience upon entry into the dining room and graciously accepted the love from the Iowa conservative faithful. He wasted no time by making a splash in the air as he and Ainsley sat at a big round table with audience members seated beside them and standing behind them. In front of them were massive plates featuring the restaurant’s signature caramel and cinnamon rolls. Vivek proceeded to pick up one roll after another with his bare hands and took a hardy bite out of each, to the crowd’s delight. He decided that cinnamon was the crème de la crème, which I agree with. Ramaswamy and Earnhardt then went to the makeshift studio at the front of the room to discuss Vivek’s position in the polls and get his reaction to the aforementioned climate protests at the U.S. Open. During this, he proudly claimed that his philosophy of “No city left behind, no state left behind, and no American left behind” would lead to a “landslide” victory in the general election next November. Vivek took some questions from diners on-air, such as one about his education policy ideas. His response that he would shut down the U.S. Department of Education, reallocate their funding to parents, and bust teachers' unions was met with even more support from the crowd. The aspect of his appearance that I found the most interesting, which I believe will score major brownie points with the attendees, was answering more questions from the crowd following the show’s conclusion. After those questions, he made his way through the tight crowd around him, shaking hands, answering even more questions, and taking pictures. I took the opportunity to meet him, shaking his hand and getting a picture. Afterward, he noted the other students behind me and said, “Thank you for bringing young people out here; keep it up!” I was impressed with the level of detail in his compliment, considering our entire interaction lasted 30 seconds.
Vivek’s support has noticeably grown since his introduction to the scene 6 months ago, and it’s no mystery to me now why some Iowans are boarding the Vivek hype train. However, with many other hungry Republican candidates running, seeing how well his campaign will compete with former president Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and more will be interesting. We’ve seen little-known candidates come to Iowa and end up with their names on the big ticket before. Will Vivek Ramaswamy be the next to cement himself in American and Iowan political lore as one of the quickest rises from unknown to the White House in U.S. history? Or will he get left behind by the lineup of heavy hitters battling for the nomination? Caucus season has only just begun, and I can’t wait to see what happens next, who will try to make a splash in Iowa next, and who will be breaking that 15 percent threshold on January 15th.