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What Is the Iowa Straw Poll?

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?

© JOHN GRESS/Reuters/Corbis

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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5 Subtle Cues That Can Tell You About Your Date's Financial Personality
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Being financially compatible with your partner is important, especially as a relationship grows. Fortunately, there are ways you can learn about your partner’s financial personality in a relationship’s early stages without seeing their bank statement or sitting them down for “the money talk.”

Are they a spender or a saver? Are they cautious with money? These habits can be learned through basic observations or casual questions that don’t feel intrusive. Here are some subtle things that can tell you about your date’s financial personality.

1. HOW THEY ANSWER BASIC MONEY QUESTIONS.

Casual conversations about finance-related topics can be very revealing. Does your date know if their employer matches their 401(k) plan contributions? Do you find their answers to any financial questions a bit vague—even the straightforward ones like “What are the rewards like on your credit card?” This could mean that your partner is a little fuzzy on some of the details of their financial situation.

As your connection grows, money talks are only natural. If your date expresses uncertainty about their monthly budget, it may be an indicator that they are still working on the best way to manage their finances or don’t keep close tabs on their spending habits.

2. WHAT THEY’RE WATCHING AND READING.

If you notice your partner is always watching business news channels, thumbing through newspapers, or checking share prices on their phone, they are clearly keeping abreast of what’s going on in the financial world. Ideally, this would lead to a well-informed financial personality that gives way to smart investments and overall monetary responsibility.

If you see that your date has an interest in national and global finances, ask them questions about what they’ve learned. The answers will tell you what type of financial mindset to expect from you partner moving forward. You might also learn something new about the world of finance and business!

3. WHERE THEY GET THEIR FOOD.

You may be able to learn a lot about someone’s financial personality just by asking what they usually do for dinner. If your date dines out a lot, it could be an indication that they are willing to spend money on experiences. On the other hand, if they’re eating most of their meals at home or prepping meals for the entire week to cut their food budget, they might be more of a saver.

4. WHETHER THEY’RE VOICING MONEY CONCERNS.

Money is a source of stress for most people, so it’s important to observe if financial anxiety plays a prominent role in your date’s day-to-day life. There are a number of common financial worries we all share—rising insurance rates, unexpected car repairs, rent increases—but there are also more specific and individualized concerns. Listen to how your date talks about money and pick up on whether their stress is grounded in worries we all have or if they have a more specific reason for concern.

In both instances, it’s important to be supportive and helpful where you can. If your partner is feeling nervous about money, they’ll likely be much more cautious about what they’re spending, which can be a good thing. But it can also stop them from making necessary purchases or looking into investments that might actually benefit them in the future. As a partner, you can help out by minimizing their expenses for things like nights out and gifts in favor of less expensive outings or homemade gifts to leave more of their budget available for necessities.

5. HOW THEY HANDLE THE BILL.

Does your date actually look at how much they’re spending before handing their credit card to the waiter or bartender at the end of the night? It’s a subtle sign, but someone who looks over a bill is likely much more observant about what they spend than someone who just blindly hands cards or cash over once they get the tab.

Knowing what you spend every month—even on smaller purchases like drinks or dinner—is key when you’re staying on a budget. It’s that awareness that allows people to adjust their monthly budget and calculate what their new balance will be once the waiter hands over the check. Someone who knows exactly what they’re spending on the small purchases is probably keeping a close eye on the bigger picture as well.

REMEMBER THERE’S NO SUBSTITUTE FOR TALKING.

While these subtle cues can be helpful signposts when you’re trying to get an idea of your date’s financial personality, none are perfect indicators that will be accurate every time. Our financial personalities are rarely cut and dry—most of us probably display some behaviors that would paint us as savers while also showing habits that exclaim “spender!” By relying too heavily on any one indicator, we might not get an accurate impression of our date.

Instead, as you get to know a new partner, the best way to learn about their financial personality is by having a straightforward and honest talk with them. You’ll learn more by listening and asking questions than you ever could by observing small behaviors.

Whatever your financial personality is, it pays to keep an eye on your credit score. Discover offers a Free Credit Scorecard, and checking it won't impact your score. It's totally free, even if you aren't a Discover customer. Check yours in seconds. Terms apply. Visit Discover to learn more.

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Animals
Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
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Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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