(Photos above via Instagram as part of our 5in5 project)

Spend a week on the road speaking with congressional candidates and voters in the Midwest and you’ll learn a thing or two — or at least have the conventional wisdom of American politics conveyed to you by real people.

It happened several times over the course of The 5in5 Project, last week’s trip across five congressional districts in five days. The trip stretched from Des Moines to Chicago and involved conversations with seven congressional candidates, dozens of voters — and a sampling of regional fare. (Fried butter, anyone? Anyone?)

So what lessons were learned — or which political trends and realities did the voters help drive home? Take a look below:

1. Midwesterners love Paul Ryan: Polling from the past week suggests that Mitt Romney’s decision to tap Paul Ryan (Wis.) as his running mate may put several Midwestern states, including Iowa and Wisconsin, back in play. Ryan made an almost-immediate favorable impression on Iowa voters, merely because of geography. The best example came courtesy of Karen Zander, a housecleaner and GOP activist from Latimer, Iowa, who while waiting for Ryan to arrive at the Iowa State Fair said that she had felt uneasy voting for Romney. But she said she can now vote for the GOP ticket, because Ryan “is from the Midwest and we kind of know him, we know the Midwest people. He’s not someone from out east, someone elite, someone we don’t know about.” Asked whether she considered Romney to be an unfamiliar East coast elitist, she said “Absolutely.” Other Republican and independent voters conveyed similar feelings.

2. Conservatives really love Paul Ryan: By midweek, devoted Republicans seemed especially pleased with the Ryan pick, saying he had proved to be an effective political salesman for Romney’s campaign. Better still for Republicans, Ryan’s selection appeared to allay the concerns of conservatives still uncomfortable with Romney’s wavering stance on certain issues. Pat Fedroski, 68, a retired flight attendant from Schaumburg, Ill., is a die-hard conservative. “People like me, we were not happy with Mitt Romney,” she said. “I feel many times that he’s snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory just since he’s been running.” But she called Ryan “brilliant” and described him as “an unabashed believer in conservative principles. He won’t bend.” The pick also proved popular with Mike Madia, 78, a retired electrician from Schaumburg. By selecting Ryan, Romney “brings the conservative wing of the party to him, because it shows that he’s willing to bring in somebody that understands us,” Madia said.

3. Voters don’t care about Congress — at least not yet: Conventional political wisdom tells us that most voters don’t start seriously thinking about their political choices until after Labor Day. Conventional wisdom — and reams of polling — proved correct last week.

Though most folks could spend more than 10 minutes discussing their thoughts on the race between Obama and Romney, any attempt to change the conversation to a discussion about Congress will earn you blank stares and apologies.

In Ames, Iowa, Priscilla Hendricks raved about Obama and went into great detail about her concerns with Romney’s stance on women’s issues. But when I asked about the local race between Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Christie Vilsack (D), she paused and very quietly admitted, “I don’t know anything about them, sorry.”

The situation repeated itself with Ellen Repass, of Rock Falls, Ill.: After she spent 10 minutes discussing her concerns with the Obama/Romney race, I asked whether she had learned anything about Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who is widely expected to win reelection from the Illinois 16th District. She also grew quiet, stared at the ground, said, “No, I have not,” and apologized profusely.

No need to apologize to this nosy reporter — voters still have two and a half months to make a decision. But as much as Americans don’t like Congress (just one in 10 have a favorable opinion, according to Gallup), several also admitted that they don’t know much about their lawmakers.

4. People don’t like Mitt Romney: As if lessons 1 and 2 didn’t already drive home this point, let me make it clear: Voters don’t personally like the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Our polling confirms this: In the week before Romney tapped Ryan, 40 percent of voters said they viewed the former governor positively, a figure virtually unchanged since May, according to Washington Post-ABC News polls. The percentage viewing Romney unfavorably rose from 45 percent to 49 percent between May and August.

When I asked a mix of independent, Republican and Democratic voters last week what they think of when they hear or see Romney, the answers ranged from “false front” to “fascist” to “flip-flopper.” (Republican and independent voters also had negative things to say about Obama. One Republican described him as “devious” while others used words we can’t print here.)

Perhaps Texas Republican Senate candidate Ted Cruz put it best on Sunday’s “Meet the Press” when he said that if the presidential election is about issues, the GOP will win. “If it’s a battle of personalities, Republicans will lose,” he told NBC.

5. Country music and classic rock are critical for a good road trip: Several small-market radio stations in Iowa and western Illinois kept 2chambers going over the course of the week — especially stations playing country music and classic rock. (But the AM dial’s focus on rosary readings and farm futures may also be worth your time.) Special mention goes to Country 92.5 KJJY-FM in Urbandale, Iowa, and Q106.5 Real Classic Rock out of Davenport, Iowa, which over the course of one hour last Tuesday night took listeners from “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Come Together” by the Beatles to “I Can Feel It Coming Back Again” by Pearl Jam to “Back in the Saddle Again” and “Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith — with “Give Me All Your Lovin’ ” by ZZ Top thrown in for good measure. Epic. This road warrior was especially grateful.

In case you missed The 5in5 Project last week, visit washingtonpost.com/5in5 or read highlights from Monday and Tuesday in Iowa and Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in Illinois.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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