As Sen. Joni Ernst walked around the Big Barn Harley-Davidson in Des Moines Saturday, shaking hands and taking photos with constituents, she insisted that the day’s events were something other than political.
“We don’t really talk politics so much when we’re on the motorcycle,” the Iowa Republican said. “It’s more a symbol of freedom and being out on the road and experiencing life on the road.”
Ernst and her guests, a group of more than 400 bikers, would soon hit the road for her the second annual Roast and Ride, an event that officially designed to honor veterans and unofficially designed to serve as a cattle-call for presidential candidates in a battleground state. Last year’s event attracted Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina among others, while Donald Trump headlined this year’s event.
But even if the speakers hadn’t made it clear that the Roast and Ride is a conservative event, the motorcycles themselves would have done the trick. In recent years, Republicans have come to adopt the motorcycle—and Harley-Davidsons, especially—as a symbol of conservatism, a metaphor for the freedom and individualism they hold sacrosanct.
Apart from Ernst, motorcycle-riding Republican politicians include Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. (Some Democrats also ride: West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former Montana Sen. Max Baucus.)
Among Republican politicians, the Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson is the preferred ride.
“There’s a particular made-in-America brand that is the Harley-Davidson that right-wing Republicans sort of gravitate toward,” said Suzanne Ferriss, professor emeritus at Nova Southeastern University who has researched motorcycle culture.
On Saturday, bike engines purred as politicians and voters milled around the outside of the pale yellow store, which is, in fact, the size and shape of a barn, waiting for the kick-off. Inside the dealership, one employee said the bikes can cost more than $40,000. Signs that pay tribute to “an American endend—Harley-Davidson—are part of the interior décor.
Steven Alford, a retired Nova professor who has done research with Ferriss, said the motorcycle has a rebellious appeal that appeals to politicians who are trying to project a maverick image.
“We have this image of motorcyclists as a sort of outlaw,” he said.
But at the Roast and Ride, bikers said that was far from the truth.
“I think that people think people on motorcycles are hoodlums and stuff, but everybody that I know that rides a bike has a normal everyday job like everyone else,” said Kim Huckins, 56, of Clarinda.
Omaha resident Chris Taylor, 47, agreed, noting that bikers often appear at charity events.
“I think we’re a really large community that is caring and helps,” he said. “We’re just not Democratic, you know? The majority of us are Republicans. And I don’t really know why we gravitate to that, but I think it’s just the type of person that a typical motorcyclist is.”
Other bikers agreed that knowing a politician can ride makes them seem more relatable.
“They aren’t worried about being in a Cadillac and their fancy shoes and their fancy dinners,” said Lisa Vandemark, 49, of Woodbine. “They’re just one of the people.”