Standing on the Iowa State Fair grounds, Gary Slater felt a unique electricity in the air.

As CEO of the fair, Slater spends as much time as he can amid the controlled chaos of the fair’s midway and the frenetic buzz of its livestock barns. For more than a dozen years, he’s relished getting out of the office and into the daylight during the fair’s 11 days.

Yet, this day — the first Saturday of the fair — was different from any other. The sun shined as presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders walked among regular fairgoers and in the digital world, “Iowa State Fair” trended on Twitter for the first time ever.

“There was excitement in the air,” he said. “An electricity. It was special.”

A record number of people seemed to agree.

The Iowa State Fair drew 1,117,398 people this year, marking an all-time high in attendance.

The previous record was 1,109,150 people in 2008. The 2011 fair came close to breaking that with 1,080,959 attendees.

“We feel blessed to break any sort of attendance record,” said Mindy Williamson, the fair’s marketing director. “We are glad that people were able to come out and enjoy multiple days at the fair despite some rainy days.”

It’s hard to pin down exactly what led to the rise in attendance, Slater said. Two of the biggest factors in this year’s success, he added, were the high-profile appearances of presidential candidates on The Des Moines Register’s Soapbox, and the school start agreement, which mandated districts begin the academic year no earlier than Aug. 23.

Signed into law by Gov. Terry Branstad in April, Slater called the agreement “the most important” element to setting this attendance record.

“Last year, 336 out of 338 schools in the state got a waiver to start sooner than Sept. 1 and most started before the fair ended, which caused our attendance numbers to suffer through the second half of the fair,” Slater said.

A spokesman for Branstad, who supported the agreement, said the governor heard from parents, teachers and students “who were all quite pleased to be able to enjoy the Iowa State Fair.”

“Many students take advantage of summer extracurricular activities and that really leaves them with the month of August for time with family and family vacations,” said Jimmy Centers, the governor’s communications director. “We’ve heard that the numbers in Okoboji are doing well this year and then now with the state fair attendance record we see that families are taking the time to spend together.”

“We also heard that more students participated in FFA and 4-H activities this year and we are very happy about that as well,” Centers added.

The busiest single day at the fair was Aug. 15, which saw 4,000 attendees more than the next most attended day, Aug. 22.

Aug. 15 saw Clinton and Trump visit the fair, while Sanders spoke at the Soapbox.

The Register’s Soapbox hosted 19 presidential candidates, a record number of speakers for a pre-caucus year.

“We saw consistently larger crowds than we have in years past, which shows how engaged Iowa’s voters are in the process,” said Amalie Nash, executive editor and vice president for news and engagement at the Register. “We also met voters from other states who specifically came to the fair to interact with candidates and hear them speak. The Soapbox offers something special by giving candidates a cross-section of Iowans and 20 minutes to get their message across. The State Fair is the perfect venue for it, and we’re pleased it was so successful this year.”

But those weren’t the only components that led to this year’s attendance achievement. Also at play were the high-profile grandstand acts (Carrie Underwood and Reba McEntire), the abundance of free music and activities throughout the grounds, the ever-growing livestock shows and, of course, the weather.

“Every year we worry about the weather,” Slater said with a laugh.

The weather this year was pretty good, according to the National Weather Service. Rain was sparse save for one day that saw 2.46 inches and the temperatures fluctuated between the upper 80s and the upper 60s.

“Just like the variety of events and booths and food at the State Fair there was a variety of weather,” said Kurt Kotenberg, a meteorologist with the NWS. “If you like hot weather, you could have gone at the start of the fair. If you like cooler temperatures, you could have gone toward the end of the fair. And for the few who like rain, there was Tuesday.”

For Slater, almost any day is a good day to be at the fair. And while he doesn’t have a minute to spare on most fair days, he always hopes whatever he’s working on leads him outside.

“Some days I get stuck in my office, it’s just part of the job, but on those days I’m very crabby,” he said. “I never want to miss a second of the fair.”

Here’s a day-by-day breakdown of attendance: 

  • DAY 1: 91,569 (2014: 77,174)
  • DAY 2:  95,624 (2014: 93,041)
  • DAY 3: 115,959 (2014: 103,555)
  • DAY 4:  101,783 (2014: 88,578)
  • DAY 5:  92,837 (2014: 87,343)
  • DAY 6: 75,436 (2014: 94,600)
  • DAY 7: 106,367 (2014: 93,256)
  • DAY 8: 107,449 (2014: 84,388)
  • DAY 9: 106,622 (2014: 85,998 )
  • DAY 10: 111,931 (2014: 108,440)
  • DAY 11: 111,821 ( 2014: 99,529)

Def Leppard beat out Carrie Underwood as this year’s most popular Grandstand act. Here’s how the other musicians fared:  

  • Casting Crowns: 7,601
  • Justin Moore: 8,871
  • Def Leppard: 10,719
  • Reba McEntire: 10,335
  • Carrie Underwood: 10,635
  • Yes & Toto: 3,568
  • Tractor Pull: 6,193
  • Alabama: 9,981
  • The Fray: 4,462
  • Rock-A-Thon: 3,984