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What Is the Iowa Straw Poll?

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In a little over a month, Republican presidential hopefuls will meet in Ames to square off in the Iowa Straw Poll. What the heck is a straw poll, and what do the results mean? Let’s take a look at some questions about the event that’s going to start dominating the political news soon.

What exactly is the Iowa Straw Poll?

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It’s sort of like a giant party crossed with a political popularity contest. Since 1979 Republicans have gathered in Ames the August before primary season gets rolling to cast votes for their favorite presidential hopefuls. (The straw poll is only held for election cycles in which there isn’t a GOP incumbent, so there wasn’t a shindig in 1983, 1991, or 2003.)

How do the candidates set up this party?

Here’s where things get really interesting.

This year’s poll will take place at Iowa State University’s Hilton Coliseum. The candidates will have giant air-conditioned tents and attractions set up around the arena to help lure in potential supporters. How do they figure out whose tent goes where? The candidates bid for the right to put their tents in the choicest spots closest to the arena. A spot costs at least $15,000, and this year Ron Paul took the most coveted real estate with a $31,000 bid.

What goes on in the tents?

Obviously, there’s some political rhetoric. There’s also a lot of food. And rides!

FairTax.org "Fairest Wheel" image courtesy of IowaPolitics.com

If every existing story about the Iowa Straw Poll is any indication, state law requires anyone describing the event in print to use the terms “carnival-like” or “county fair” at some point. The candidates and their supporters give speeches inside their air-conditioned tents, but they also hand out free chow, often barbecue, ice cream, and/or fried chicken.

Voters also get freebies; in 1999 Dan Quayle gave away bundles of raw corn. Pat Buchanan gave away potholders and bottles of barbecue sauce.

The tents aren’t just about food and stump speeches, though. There’s also entertainment. The county fair comparisons seem particularly apt here, as candidates often trot out musical acts that hit their commercial peaks decades earlier. For example, in 1999 Lamar Alexander trotted out Crystal “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” Gayle. Steve Forbes countered with Ronnie “Smoky Mountain Rain” Milsap.

How many convention delegates are at stake here?

Zero. While the straw poll gets a lot of media hype, the results aren’t binding and don’t directly help the winner get closer to the Republican presidential nomination.

So what’s the point of all this hoopla, then?

Image courtesy of IowaPolitics.com

The Iowa Straw Poll doesn’t help divvy up convention delegates, but it has its uses. The event is generally seen as a good early test for candidates’ organizational strength in the state. Since February’s Iowa caucuses will be one of the major early events in the road to next year’s Republican nomination, having a strong organization with traction in the state is important for hopeful candidates. A disappointing showing in the straw poll can raise serious concerns about a campaign’s future.

Where does all that cash go?

Directly into the coffers of the Republican Party of Iowa. Whatever you think of the predictive value of the poll or its significance in the election cycle, you’ve got to hand it to the state party for coming up with a heck of a fundraising idea. On top of those fat fees to set up a tent, the party also pulls in an admission fee from each voter who attends the poll. This year’s tickets go for $30.

Do voters really spend $30 apiece to vote in a non-binding straw poll?

Some voters would argue that $30 is a bargain price for free barbecue, fried chicken, and performances by obscure musical acts. Most voters would not, though. That’s why candidates often pick up all or most of the tab for their supporters’ tickets.

Candidates do more than just pay for tickets. Since voters have to actually show up in Ames to cast their ballots, candidates bus in their supporters to help stack the deck. When Steve Forbes threw gobs of money at the contest in 1999, he brought in 4,000 supporters on board 85 chartered buses in an effort to derail George W. Bush’s candidacy.

Does the straw poll do a good job of predicting the eventual winner of the Iowa caucuses?

Sort of. The Iowa Straw Poll has been held five times: in 1979, 1987, 1995, 1999, and 2007. In 1979 and 1999 the winners (George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, respectively) went on to take the top spot in the caucuses. In 1995, Bob Dole tied for first with Phil Gramm at 2,582 votes apiece before winning the caucuses. In 1987 Pat Robertson beat Dole and George H.W. Bush in the straw poll but fell to Dole in the caucuses, and in the last election cycle Mitt Romney won the straw poll but lost to Mike Huckabee when it counted.

Does a poor performance in the Iowa Straw Poll doom a candidate?

Not necessarily. While marginal candidates who struggle in the contest often decide to call it quits upon leaving Ames, other candidates have begun to dismiss the importance of the event. John McCain ignored the poll in 2007 and finished in 10th place with 0.7 percent of the vote, behind such luminaries as Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter. As you probably remember, he ended up winning the nomination anyway.

Mitt Romney is taking a similar tack this year. Romney threw millions of dollars at the 2007 straw poll and won an easy victory over second-place finisher Mike Huckabee, who went on to win the caucuses. This year, Romney has announced that he’s skipping the Iowa Straw Poll in favor of focusing his time and resources on the primaries and caucuses that count. Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman are bagging this year’s Iowa Straw Poll as well.

How reliable are the actual voting results?

If the reports are true, the Iowa Straw Poll results have historically been at least as reliable as those from your average student council election. Prior to 1999, voters didn’t even have to be from Iowa, so candidates could bus or fly their supporters in from out of state to tilt the odds in their favor.

Voting early and often was another possibility in earlier versions of the poll. Voters would get their hand stamped to indicate that they had voted, but some would just visit the bathroom, wash off the stamp, and cast a second ballot. (This trick was particularly prevalent in 1995.) Eventually organizers wised up to this chicanery and switched to indelible ink; starting in 2007 voters had to dip their thumbs in permanent ink to show they had cast their ballots.

Image courtesy of IowaPolitics.com

Even these anti-fraud measures haven’t totally quieted objections from candidates and their supporters. In 2007 Ron Paul supporters claimed that the voting machines used in the polls were rigged and cost their man a win.

Wait, where does the term "straw poll" come from, anyway?

PBS answered that question in 1999, citing William Safire's New Political Dictionary. In the 17th century, writer John Selden was credited with this quote: "Take a straw and throw it up into the air—you may see by that which way the wind is. More solid things do not show the complexion of the times so well."

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

1. PANGANGALULUWA // THE PHILIPPINES

Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.
Suman

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.

2. PÃO-POR-DEUS // PORTUGAL

Raw dough.
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Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.

3. HALLOWEEN APPLES // WESTERN CANADA

Kids trick-or-treating.
iStock

If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.

4. ST. MARTIN'S DAY // THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.

5. A PENNY FOR THE GUY // THE UK

Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.

6. TRICKS FOR TREATS // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Kids knocking on a door in costume.
iStock

If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.

7. ME DA PARA MI CALAVERITA // MEXICO

Sugar skulls with decoration.
iStock

While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.

8. HALLOWEEN! // QUEBEC, CANADA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
iStock

Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.

9. SWEET OR SOUR // GERMANY

Little girl trick-or-treating.
iStock

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.

10. TRIQUI, TRIQUI HALLOWEEN // COLOMBIA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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