I am Iowan. I am barn.

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I’ve known very few real Iowans. I know people who live there now but are from the Twin Cities, but I’ve only met a handful of native Iowans. One of them is a dear friend, most are only vague acquaintances. Six of them were landlubbing pirates of no value to humanity whatsoever.1 But I’m sure Iowans are mostly wonderful people who are well intentioned, hard working, intelligent, and are just as good as anyone else. Nonetheless, states have personalities and personalities have reputations, and people who live in states contribute to making those personalities and reputations. And for that reason I’m sure I’ll be forgiven for what I’m about to say. About your stupid state.

First, let’s talk about the barn. Later, we’ll get to the so called Iowa Straw Poll (there is no such thing but that’s what people call it). And we’ll talk about the turtle races. And I’ll tie it all in together.

If I go south to Iowa, which I’ve done mainly to get somewhere requiring me to go through Iowa, I can tell I’m getting close to the border because a huge red barn looms on the horizon, and that barn, which is fake, is known as the Top of Iowa Visitor’s Center. It’s on Interstate 35 (God’s personal highway) and from there south it’s just a couple of hours to Ames, which will be important to know about in a moment.

The barn is funny to me for this reason: If you go past the big red fake barn and keep an eye off to the west, right away you’ll see another big red barn that is actually on a farm, and it looks pretty much the same. Then, if you keep going on Interstate 35, or get off Interstate 35 and hit some of the side roads, you’ll see more and more of those big red barns. We’ve got a lot of barns in Minnesota, and not far from where I grew up there were a lot of barns, and I hear they have them in California, but Iowa has the lock on the big red barns. I scoured the web for a shot of one, just a regular big red farm barn like they have all over the place in Iowa, and found this one by Carl Wycoff, kindly placed on Flicker with a creative commons copyright. Here’s Carl’s picture, click on it to go to the original:


(While you’re over there, have a look at this shot too. Very nice.)

I mention the barns for this reason: If you’ve been watching the news about the so-called Iowa Caucus, there are two images you can not have missed. The most common one, of course, is the big red barn in the background of every outdoor shot. You might have been thinking that this was some kind of setup, some sort of diversion, or a trick to make you think the people of Iowa are genuine or something, but where they build the big red fake barn movie set and shoot all the politicians in front of it. But no, that’s not it at all. You can’t swing a dead muskrat in Iowa without hitting the broad side of a big red barn. That’s how it is. Iowa is for real.

But it is funny to me that we pay attention to the so called “Iowa Straw Poll.” Which is actually the Ames Straw Poll, one of several held around the state, but the only one we count. We as a nation ask the Iowans their opinion about who should be the leader of our entire country, and we pay a lot of attention to what they say, and it matters. But really, who are the Iowans and why should we care about what they say?

For one thing, it is important to note that something like 20,000 people max ‘vote’ in the straw poll. Seven one hundreds of a percent of our population, who live mainly in central Iowa, represent all of us for this event. How typical is Iowa of the rest of the country? And, does the nation go as goes Ames?

Iowa is 91.3 percent white. It is 84% “white not Hispanic.” By comparison, the North Star State is 85%/83. For a further comparison, the coolest county in Minnesota is 74/72. For the US it’s 72/74. Iowa is quite white.

US average income is about 27K/50K (personal/household) For Iowa it’s 25K/48K. But while the national poverty level is 14%, in Iowa, it’s 11%. About 29 percent of US business are woman owned. In Iowa it’s 25 percent. These all sound like similar numbers, like Iowa is typical, but that’s how it goes when you look at entire states. Iowa is a bit off the average in all ways that the typical red state is.

But still, the State of Iowa is in the middle, both geographically (it is kinda in the middle of the US, if you look at a map) and demographically, economically, and in the other usual ways. So, given this, why is it that Iowans are … well, the way they are? And what, exactly, do I mean by that?

This is where the turtle races come in. The turtle races are held in Longville, Minnesota. There are other places that have turtle races these days, like Niswa, Minnesota and I hear there’s one somewhere else nearby, but Longville is the original and the only one of any importance. It is held every Wednesday during the summer. Main street is closed down, so to drive through town you have to go on the dirt roads. A turtle race looks like this:

First, you’all get in a big ring with your reptiles and line them up on the edge:
Then, when the race starts, you jump up and run away.
Then, the turtles, which do not like being on the hot pavement, run away. The first one to get to the outer ring wins. The one that goes the least distance also wins.

This is done several times and then, at the end, all the winning turtles in both the speed category and the slow poke category go for that weeks’ championship.

The turtle race iteslf is fun, but that is not the part that relates to Iowa or Iowans. The part that relates to Iowa and Iowans is before the turtle race.

Before the race, a stage is set up from which the races are called, and booths are set up where kids can play silly games, and local merchants set up tables to sell their wares, and food vendors show up to sell food. The most popular food vendor is probably the “mini donut” truck which sells mini donuts, but mainly, sells deep fried cheese curd and deep fried funnel cake (Every culture has a form of funnel cake).

So, the stage is set up, the vendors are set up, and the crowd is thickening with people who have come to the northern part of Minnesota to enjoy the boating, the fishing, the mosquitoes, and the turtle races. But the races are not ready to start yet. Something else has to happen first.

The master of ceremonies for the Turtle Races, who I assumed for a long time was the Mayor of Longville (but I was apparently wrong) turns up the megaphone and draws the crowd’s attention.

“Welcome to the Longville Turtle Races”

Everybody turns and a smattering of applause happens.

“We’re going to have a great day today, if the rain holds out!”

More clapping.

“We’re going have some great turtle racing in a minute, but first we’ve got a few other things to do!”

Clapping, some cheering.

“First, let me ask you, how many of you are from Iowa?”

Cheering, hundreds of hands go up. Most of the Iowans are standing near the Turtle Race arena or near the adjoining kiddie booths. Most have already acquired the button and ribbon and sticker that they will wear for the race. The button has a number on it and the sticker, which comes off the ribbon, has a corresponding number, and is affixed to the turtle. They’ve paid a buck or two per race. The ribbon also has the race number (there are ten). So they’re standing around in the middle of main street, maybe 150 of them, most with turtle race ribbons, hands in the air declaring that they are form Iowa, and the people standing out father, on the sidewalks or farther up main street, are watching them and they don’t have their hands up. They are the Minnesotans.

“Anybody from North Dakota?”

One guy’s hand goes up.

“South Dakota?”

No hands are raised.

“So, South Dakotans… they don’t like turtles. But I’m glad to hear there’s lots of Iowans here! Welcome to Minnesota!”

Cheers and clapping.

“And we’re going to get to the turtle races in a few minutes, but first, you all know what it’s time for!”

And now, cheering and clapping, but this time from the Minnesotans standing around the edge. The Iowans are not sure what it’s time for.

“It’s time for the Chicken Dance.”

And at this point, the Iowans are rounded up into the middle of the turtle racing arena and made to do the Chicken Dance.

Iowans doing the chicken dance. Sorry for the bad quality of the footage: It was taken with a camera hidden in a deep fried cheese curd.

They love it. They were not expecting this bonus activity. And they’re pretty darn good at it. A couple of local teenagers instruct them from the stage.

“That was great. But now it’s time for the … The Hokey Poky!”

And the Iowans do the Hokey Poky. And boy, are they good at that! Many are quite inventive.

“That was wonderful! Now, it’s time for the Macarena!”

They kill the Macarena.

“OK, everybody, let’s see you dance to YMCA!”

There is a bit of hesitation because it is a gay dance, but they comply.

“And now it’s time for the hoola hoop contest!”

And there are four versions of the hoola hoop contest. Several Iowans will be going home with trophys this week! Well, not exactly trophys, but gift certificates that can be used to buy a portion of an ice crime cone at the ice cream shop on Main Street.

And then, finally the Turtle Race. And if you win the turtle race, which cost you two bucks to enter, you get a gift certificate worth 50 cents towards the purchase of an ice cream cone or candy bar.2

And then, they go home and elect the leader of the free world.

But not really. Because the Ames Straw Poll (which is known as the Iowa Straw Poll) has predicted the outcome of the United States general election for President of the Unites States of America …. exactly once.

In 1980 George HW Bush won the poll but Ronald Reagan won the nomination and presidency. In 1987 Pat Robertson won the poll, but George HW Bush Won the nomination and presidency. In 1995 Bob Doll and Phil Gramm tied the poll, Bob Dole won the primary Bill Clinton won the presidency. In 1999 George W. Bush won the poll, the primary, and the presidency. They got that one right. In 2007 Mitt Romney won the poll, John McCain won the primary, and Barack Obama won the presidency.

Oh, and now we get to the item I mentioned above … I said that if you’ve been paying attention to the poll related news, you’ve repeatedly seen two images, a big red barn and another one. The other one is, of course, Michel Bachmann, who won the poll this year.
Photo by Toby Harnden

The Iowa poll started out as bunch of Iowans expressing their opinions very early in the presidential race, but it has turned into an activist run event (and this probably happened early) and tends to favor the crazies. Pat Roberston is the guy who blamed the Haiti earthquake on a deal that 18th century Hatians made with Satan. Phil Gramm is only slightly less insane than Pat Robertson. George W. Bush … well, the entire country went crazy for that decade. And now, Michele.

So the poll rarely predicts anything. It certainly does not shape anyone opinion. Mainly, it’s a big giant chicken dance, run by outsiders who bring the Iowans together and get them to put on a show which may or may not have political utility for someone, but certainly has little to do with what we need to do as a nation. Which would be, well, not racing turtles.

Iowa. You are a stupid state. Please try to do better.

1You guessed it: They worked for a publishing company.
2I brought a friend to the Turtle Races a few weeks ago and we watched all this happen. And while I was there I calculated in my mind how much money the good citizens of Longville, Minnesota, of which there are 271, make in this city-run event. I’m pretty sure that they don’t need to pay taxes! Thank you very much Iowa!

Photos of the turtle race by the author.

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33 thoughts on “I am Iowan. I am barn.

  1. Unlike Bachmann who was born in Waterloo but was raised in Minnesota I was born in Waterloo Iowa and left there in 1970 at the age of 18. I only return to visit family. I used to be an Iowa Republican and now I am a Wisconsin socialist. Glad I left Iowa as I would not like to live there again. However there are some great folks there as there are in other places. I just never felt I fit there. By the way there are some people with questionable intelligence everywhere. Minnesota did elect Pawlenty and Bachmann. Wisconsin also elected Walker and Ron Johnson. When it comes to electoral politics being first doesn’t always mean being right. It just give sthe media something to talk about while they ignore the economy, lack of jobs , immoral wars, corporate takeover, etc.

  2. Really someone should really figure out why Minnesotans are so obsessed with establishing that Minnesota is completely different from Iowa. I grew up in Iowa and then moved to Minnesota when I graduated college. When I got there the Minnesotans informed me that there was a “Minnesota-Iowa” feud and delighted in telling me “Iowa jokes.” This was actually the first I’d ever heard that there was a difference between Iowa and Minnesota, to say nothing of a feud.

    Honestly, they are pretty much the same place. To wit: With the exception of 2004, Iowa and Minnesota have sent their electoral votes to the exact same Presidential candidate in every Presidential election since 1988.

    As this blog post indicates, however, Minnesotans are obsessed that there is a HUGE difference between the two states. You know, like the enormous gap between Walter Mondale and Tom Harkin. Or the gigantic difference between Norm Coleman and Charles Grassley. It must all look pretty silly to people not from the midwest, or even just to people from Iowa.

  3. … someone should really figure out why Minnesotans are so obsessed with establishing that Minnesota is completely different from Iowa…like the enormous gap between Walter Mondale and Tom Harkin.

    Well, Iowa does have a rest stop called “the top of Iowa” on top of which Minnesota sits!

    But yeah, I had never heard of this manufactured rivalry until I moved from Massachusetts to Minnesota, and later discovered that Iowa was a state just to our south.

  4. So that’s Bachmann. By the looks of her eyes eating that huge sausage I reckon she could give Monica Lewinsky a lesson or two.

  5. Well, I’m originally from NE MO, and believe me, WE have Iowa jokes, too. (How do you tell the Iowa state legislator at a fancy dress ball? He’s the one with the cummerbund over his bib overalls.)

  6. I was born and raised in Illinois*. This is the first time I’ve ever heard about this rivalry, although I’ve heard all those same jokes told about people from Indiana.**

    I’ve also heard the joke about the Boston, Massachusetts matron who was introduced to someone from Iowa.
    “And where are you from, deah?” the Bostonian asked.
    The Iowan, in her Midwest accent, said, “I’m from I-oh-way.”
    The Bostonian looked down her nose and sneered, “In Boston, we pronounce that ‘Ohio.'”

    *For people who don’t study US geography, that’s adjacent to Iowa on the East.
    ** That’s adjacent to Illinois on the East.

  7. Unfortunately I don’t see much potential for improvement with the Iowa Straw Poll situation – it’s really mostly a problem with the press.

    They’ll always go apeshit-crazy over the first event or poll they can tie to the election with even just a resemblance of legitimacy – by nature, that first event or poll will always be inaccurate due to sample size and earliness, but it’s that earliness that gives it news value. If the Iowa Straw Poll wouldn’t exist, or would be conducted later and in a different, more representative form, the press attention would simply shift to some other half-baked “first test”, and the hullabaloo would be the same. The natural reaction to having nothing news-worthy to report is not reporting nothing, it’s reporting something not news-worthy and pretending different – it’s a business, after all.

  8. Thanks for this post, Greg. 🙂

    I was wondering before how much value the “Iowa straw Poll” mentioned on the TV news really had.

    So now it seems the answer is not much – and it’s probably a good thing Bachman won this early and seemingly rather meaningless round because it almost certainly means she’ll lose the main rounds the Primary (Republican nomination right?) and the big one, the Presidency – if precedent is anything to go by. 😉

    I stand by my earlier prediction (& hope) for the 2012 US election :

    Mitt Romney will be the eventual Republican candidate up against Barack Obama – & Obama will win the Presidency.

    This Aussie really does think that the majority of Americans are, in general, too smart and too moderate and decent to vote in the extremists like Bachmann, Perry or Palin.

    Please, USA, please don’t prove me wrong!

  9. Delurked lurker: Anyone who can look at that photo and not come up with their own oral-sex comment is just too innocent for this cruel and fallen world.

  10. Obligatory Ron Paul post.

    Bachmann only won by 152 votes and gave 6000 tickets away for only 4800 votes. Ron Paul sold tickets for $10 and got 4700 votes.

    But who cares. Let Bachmann, Romney, and Perry split up the status quo / “head in the sand” vote.

  11. hoary puccoon: I’ve seen that happen while living in Boston. Well, not exactly that but damn close.

    SteveoR:This Aussie really does think that the majority of Americans are, in general, too smart and too moderate and decent to vote in the extremists like Bachmann, Perry or Palin.

    Two words: Ronald Reagan and George Bush Jr.

    Steve, one thing I did not mention is that the ISP and other early contests do serve to weed out, or at least be punctuations at which there is weeding out of, chaff. So, the real news this time around is Paw Paw Pawlenty leaving the race after a decade of torturing Minnesotans. He shall never be forgiven.

    Coward: Yeah, and that’s another thing I didn’t mention, but I strongly implied it for the insiders to chuckle at: The Iowans… they’ll do a chicken dance for the vague chance of getting 50 cents towards an ice cream cone. Think of what they’ll do for a free ticket to a corn dog dinner!

    Michele Bachmann eating a foot long corn dog is not about oral sex, it is not a “sexually aggressive photograph” as has been claimed (presumably by people with no actual oral sex experience) and it is not a sexist event. It is a message being sent. Just eat your corn dog and shut up.

    And yes, I’ll be at the State Fair in Minnesota where I hope to capture a photograph of several politicians eating a corn dog.

  12. Just stumbled on this earlier tonight :


    Rachel Maddow’s view of this whole Iowa Straw poll thing.

    @11. Greg Laden :

    Two words: Ronald Reagan and George Bush Jr.

    Third time lucky? 😉

    Did Reagun or Bush Jr win the Iowa Straw Poll? Were they really as bad as Bachmann?

    (Ok, Bush Jr may have been, but Reagun turned out sorta okay didn’t he? Who would be worse Bachman or Bush II?)

    Pawlenty~wise : He wasn’t ever really a serious contender and never really had much hope of winning did he? First to throw his hat in the ring, one of the least known candidates and first to depart the scene. He was always destined to be a footnote, right?

  13. I heard this from a transplanted Iowan (it helps to know that Iowa’s counties are basically arranged in E-W rows): if you took the bottom row of counties and gave it to Missouri, you’d raise the mean IQ of both states. (Apparently Minnesotans tell this joke using their bottom row of counties and Iowa.)

  14. SteveO, Reagan was bad, very bad. The Republicants have done a good job at making him a saint.

    Today, Bachmann says she wants to eliminate the EPA. Reagan said the same thing. Most present day Republicans are against Unions, and there is often a fight between Dems and Reps about that. Reagan simply closed down a major union with an executive decree. It goes on and on.

    The emplacement of a strong ultra conservative right wing with the power and will to deny climate change, stop or disable any kind of health care reform, make it possible for someone like GW Bush to make a sham of all regulations was put in place by Ronald Reagan. These abilities and power bases did not exist before his 12 years in office (as it were) and they were put there then by that particular wing of the Republican party under his aegis. If modern day conservative politics in the US is Camalot, Reagan was Uther Pendragon.

    Pawlenty was no less serious than any of the others typicaly are, which means, we can really only evaluate these things post hoc. I never thought he had a chance. He won gov here twice because of a split vote from an eat-your-own-young Democratic party.

    Yeah, I was going to put up that link to Maddow… thanks for including it.

  15. Bachmann only won by 152 votes and gave 6000 tickets away for only 4800 votes. Ron Paul sold tickets for $10 and got 4700 votes.

    They bought tickets they could have got for free? That says a lot about the intelligence of Ron Paul’s supporters.

  16. Delurked Lurker:

    So that’s Bachmann. By the looks of her eyes eating that huge sausage I reckon she could give Monica Lewinsky a lesson or two.

    Actually, according to the TV coverage I watched, that’s not a sausage. Nor is it a corn dog. It’s the latest thing at the Iowa State Fair — deep fried butter. Seirously. A stick of butter is put on a stick, then dipped in batter, then fried. Then eaten. That is what she’s indulging in there.

    I like butter. I’ll eat butter pats straight. And even I find the idea of fried butter repulsive. (Fried cheese, on the other hand . . . mmmmmm! It’s almost time for the Great Minnesota Get-Together, and I must have a bag of deep fried cheese curds. Summer will not be complete without it. And also a bag of mini donuts.)

  17. Raging Bee: Yeah, I want to get my hands on all the numbers, which I’m sure are avialable. The real question is, what percentage of the ballots you GIVE people at the same time that you FEED them do they use to vote for you instead of someone else. 1,200 people took Bachmann’s free ballots and voted for a different candidate.

    And the ballots cost money. That’s a lot of foot long corn dogs.

  18. It would have been much funnier BTW if that was Rick Perry.

    Calli Arcale, citations please 😉

    Did you know that some Brits, mainly Scots deep fry Mars bars! Nearly died when I saw it at a Scottish fish and chip shop, mind you you could also get deep fried Haggis.

  19. One of the funnier things about Iowa and presidential elections, while the Ames Straw Poll seems to be about Republicans, the state as a whole is as likely to go Democratic as Republican which makes it an interesting state to campaign in. They aren’t all Republicans there and it is not “typically a Red State” although the Ames Straw Poll would present it as such. The hype seems to be caused by the news which so badly wants to find something to talk about other than what is going on in Washington these days. Just so you know, not even most Iowans pay attention to the Ames Straw Poll because there are other Iowa traditions which seem to better predict presidential elections but they don’t really come into play until there are nominees from both parties. This is the race that really matters.

  20. Lizann, you’re right, Iowa is not a typical red state, but the demographics lean in that direction. The very high percentage of farmers and the high percentage of people who are related to farming (and the traditional link to the Democratic party), the presence of a big university, etc. etc. matter, and Iowa has gone mostly for Democratic presidents recetnly. But IIRC Iowa favored Reagan and went red in 2004.

  21. Delurked Lurker:

    Calli Arcale, citations please 😉

    It was on KMSP (which admittedly is a Fox affiliate, though they have a great morning local news program); that’s the best I can give you. The Daily Show alluded to it, though, in their mock coverage of the event, as Asif Mondvi was depicted eating a stick of butter dipped in mayonnaise. Ew.

    Did you know that some Brits, mainly Scots deep fry Mars bars!

    Yes, I’ve heard of that. It’s been done at our local state fair in Minnesota as well. It seems there is no limit to what can be battered and fried. 😉 Actually, I tried the fried ice cream on a stick a few years ago, and it was pretty good. Overpriced, though, to be perfectly honest.

  22. For those who will be at the Minnesota State Fair this year, the Deep Fried Mars Bars will be available at A Salt & Battery.

    A Salt & Battery also has Fried Beets.

    That thing Michele is eating is a foot long corn dog, for sure. Anything else you see in that photograph, such as a foot long slab of deep fried butter, is entirely between you and Professor Freud.

  23. This discussion must come to a halt so that the deep fried butter proposal can be settled.

    BTW I took a taxi to my first AAAS meeting in the company of two retired guys from Iowa that said looking forward to the meeting was what kept them sane the rest of the year. They were like the old guys in the balcony on the Muppett Show with frayed cuffs and sticky-up hair. I have finally reached the age where I look like that too. 🙁 I was hoping it was Iowa.

  24. That wasn’t deep fried butter.

    You’re right. That there was a foot long corn dog. When six inches of corn dog will not do.

  25. Greg,re: “He won gov here twice because of a split vote from an eat-your-own-young Democratic party.”

    Wow, I was always wondering if you had noticed that trend amongst liberals–eating their young…

  26. I am a native Iowan from Davenport, and relocated to Colorado 25 years ago (We were told we could leave, so I did). Honestly, we had to drive 15 miles out of the city to see a barn. I never engaged in the â??Chicken Danceâ?, or the â??Hokey Pokeyâ?, and I wanted to thank you for not mentioning the Greased Pig contests, or the Cow Chip throwing contests that are held in various farming communities throughout the state (Iâ??ve heard that if you got one with a little moisture left in them, you got better distance). I still quiver at the thought of the little known â??Septic Tankâ? scare of the 1970â??s. The one where we found out the state of Minnesota had bought 5,000 septic tanks, and were planning to invade Iowa as soon as they learned how to drive them.
    Proud to be a real American,

  27. Did you know Iowa is getting a new zoo? They’re putting a fence around Minnesota! I shall not mention the new astroturf in the college football stationer.

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