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!”
“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.
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.