Who Will Get Small-Business Owners' Vote?

Business owners sound off on who they feel is the better candidate for small business.
Contributor, Amex OPEN Forum
November 05, 2012

It wasn't that long ago that it seemed Romney had a lock on the small-business vote. However, the closer we came to election day, the more many small-business owners moved into undecided territory. To gauge how small-business owners will vote, we go to swing state Colorado to talk with two entrepreneurs who hold opposing political views—but views shared by many small-business owners nationwide. We also talk to political experts on why so many small-business owners moved into the undecided territory right before the election.

This Election, It's Personal

Linda Gramera, a Durango, Colorado business owner of 16 years, is voting for Republican candidate, Mitt Romney.

"I think Romney is much more qualified and more aware of what small businesses need," she says. 

Gramera's opinion is not an uncommon one among small-business entrepreneurs. Romney supporters make up more than half of the small-business voting base, according to polls taken this year by Manta, a company that has been tracking the presidential race since January. However, a Manta poll from early October shows a voter base in flux.

In flux, doesn't mean they won't vote, however. The National Federation of Independent Businesses reports that some 84 percent of the more than 7,000 small-business owners it polled about political participation prior to the last presidential election typically vote in a given contest—local, regional, and national. 

"Small-business owners are passionate about their future," says Pamela Springer, CEO of Manta, and she adds: "The vast majority we polled, 68 percent, thinks small business is a bigger issue in this year’s election."

Exactly how they think can differ based on a number of factors in play, from political affiliations to how long someone has owned his or her business. Small-business entrepreneurs are talking about the 2012 election from personal points of view, and with personal survival on their minds.

Emmanuel Dunand / AFP /Getty Images

A Vote for Romney

Gramera says the vote comes down to one central question: Is the economy doing well enough for her company to tap into the resources and clients that it needs to ride out the economic downturn? 

"We work with other businesses," Gramera says. "If other businesses aren't doing well, we aren't doing well." 

Gramera's company, Scrimshaws Ltd., is a two-employee interior-design firm. It's been around for about four decades, and Gramera has been at the helm for 16 of those years.

From the furniture in a room to the architectural features of the buildings around those spaces, the Scrimshaws team relies on different subcontractors—those "other businesses"—to help make her designs a reality.

When contractors' availability and flexibility dwindle because crews have been laid off, Scrimshaws suffers. And, Gramera says, the loss of clients who want, and can afford, to order her services is also driven by a recession-battered economy. 

So, the change she wants is on two fronts. Gramera says small-business owners need less regulation and a growth-friendly tax structure. She's turned to Romney's five-point plan, hoping that it will restart a sagging U.S. economy.

"Every time we have meetings, they're called business after-hours around here," she says of herself and other owners in Durango, "people are complaining about the same thing. The economy is just absolutely terrible. We're headed in the wrong direction."

Among small-business owners like Gramera, however, something about the 2012 election may be changing. 

It may not mean that one candidate or the other stands to sweep a swing state because of small-business owners alone, but it does suggest something tangible about how these owners perceive the current candidates.

According to the Manta polls, as of Aug. 21 Romney had support from 61 percent of people such as Gramera. But as of Oct. 9, the Republican candidate was down to 47 percent of small-business owners saying they'll cast their ballot for him.

Conversely, but not yet in sufficient numbers to tip the small-business scales, as of Oct. 9 Obama added 9 percentage points to the tally of small-business owning voters polled to his base—35 percent say they'll back him with their vote.

Swing states are showing a similar trend. In Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, the Manta poll showed that small-business owners were leaning toward Romney. The former Massachusetts governor had 48 percent support in those states to 38 percent for Obama.

Melina Mara / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Meet the New Undecided: Factoring in the 14 Percent

Something notable about the Oct. 9 numbers, when it comes to Mitt Romney's 14-percentage-point dip in the Manta polls, is that they come on the heels of what is largely accepted to have been a strong performance by the governor during his first debate with the president. (Note: Manta has not tracked small-business numbers since then, so the impact of the Oct. 16 and Oct. 22 discussions are not included in the results.)

Jeffrey Coyne, who has been looking at presidential campaigns for a considerable amount of time, suggests a reason for the change after Oct. 3. It may not have much to do with the debate at all.

Coyne, a vice president with the Winston/Terrell Group who has worked on several political campaigns, says the Oct. 9 numbers show voters taking what may amount to their first close look at Gov. Romney. 

"Small-business owners have maybe been more worried about making payroll, paying bills, getting their product out their doors, but now they're starting to pay attention," Coyne says. 

"I think it was the conventions that spurred them," he says. "And Romney saying 'I only care about the 47 percent' comment. So, okay, who is Mitt Romney?" 

The scope of Coyne's question perhaps starts in 1994, when Romney ran against Sen. Ted Kennedy. The takeaway on that race was that Romney looked cautious, a bit guarded about issues such as religion and his track-record with Bain Capital. He was blasted at times from within his own party for contributing money to Democrats in the years preceding. 

Then there was Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, whose arguably most significant public policy victory in the Commonwealth was healthcare reform in 2006. It is an accomplishment that could now be just the kind of thing that sticks in the craw of those opposed to the somewhat similar national thrust of Obama's Affordable Care Act. 

Coyne also turns to the version of Romney that is presently running for president. This is the candidate who, at the RNC and speeches surrounding it, projected a particularly conservative image. It is a conservatism, Coyne suggests, that doesn't always fully jibe with what has come before, in some voter's eyes. 

"Who is the true Mitt Romney?" Coyne says, returning to the question. "We know who the president is, he's been president for four years, but who is Mitt Romney?"

 Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post / Getty Images

A Vote for Obama

For Anne Landman, a small-business owner in Grand Junction, Colo., her vote will be for Barack Obama. The reason revolves around the issue of health care for the solo entrepreneur. 

ThoughtOnBoard is Landman's one-woman shop. Since 1988, she's made reusable dry-erase signs that her customers can stick to glass surfaces with the text facing outward. 

Landman hadn't intended the company to become her full-time gig, but then she lost her editing job in February 2012. Given that her husband runs his own marriage-therapy business and consults as a licensed social worker, and given that both are aging into the Medicare bracket, health insurance became a sudden and acutely critical issue for the Landman household. 

Case in point, her premium after losing her job and switching to the business full-time: $416 per month. That's recently come down to $353 after she waged a four-month fight. In light of that experience, Landman says that Obama represents a more affordable future when it comes to coverage for the country's new small-business owners, especially those who are a bit older. 

"I’m voting for President Obama because he clearly can relate far more to average Americans than Mitt Romney," Landman says. "I have a mandate. I have to have health insurance to protect my family from bankruptcy."

That kind of impulse is not surprising to Peter Ubertaccio, chair of the department of political science at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. If there is a way to parse the difference between the small-business owners who say they'll vote for Obama and those who are resolute for Romney, it may include the number of years they've run their company. 

"This would be a group of people who bucked the trend, economically," Ubertaccio says of entrepreneurs starting businesses during the recession, even if they've had to do so out of necessity. 

"Here we have one small group who have been able to put something together under this president," he continues. "If they're feeling a bit successful or optimistic enough, if they've been able to flash that entrepreneurial spirit, then they may see increasing government responsibility in healthcare as a positive. They're not necessarily going to look at the White House as an obstacle."

The Final Tally: Small-Business Voters on Nov. 6

What isn’t clear is what the 14 percentage points that have dropped off Romney's voter base may mean. What portion will swing one way or the other?

"That 14 percent, they were with Romney, leaning with him, but they weren't steadfast in their support, yet," Coyne says. Still, to his way of thinking: "they will end up voting for either the President or the Governor." 

What is certain is that for some of the 14 percent, who are no longer among Romney's sure-bet supporters, the coin is still in the air. 

That is, nationwide, both candidates can consider the newly unproclaimed an undecided segment that is very much in play when it comes to small-business at the ballot boxes in every state. 

"Small-business owners have been clamoring for their voices to be heard during this election," says Manta's Springer. "And it's well past time for the candidates to provide concrete plans about the issues SMBs have consistently cared about this year."

 Which candidate do you feel best represents small business?