President Obama is holding his own among small business voters and, depending on which report you read, even beating Governor Romney. Let me explain.
Here it is, only a few weeks before the Presidential election, and I'm still on the fence. Can you believe it? I'm a registered Republican who voted for Obama in 2008. I like both candidates and I see weaknesses in both candidates. I'm not convinced that either has the answers or that either team of economic experts really knows what its talking about. When it comes to the economy, I think I'm leaning Romney but I admit that I'm not entirely sure which candidate would be best for my small business.
Apparently, though, this is not the case for many small business owners. According to recent polls, it's a very close race. And oftentimes it's President Obama who's more popular.
As recently as last week I participated in a small business event in Chicago sponsored by Dell where more than half of the 100 small businesses surveyed said they would vote for President Obama. Another recent survey also reported that a majority of small business owners favor Obama and are more optimistic for 2013. Just last month small business respondents to a George Washington University survey felt that Governor Romney would be less supportive than the President. And even though one in three small businesses say they're worse off than in 2008, another poll found that Obama had gained significant ground. That said, it's not all one-sided. A bunch of small tech CEOs say that Romney's better for the economy; a recent poll found that small businesses showed significant preference for the Romney-Ryan ticket.
But shouldn't this election be more lopsided? The slow growth, the high unemployment, the tough times, the declining incomes over the past few years--isn't President Obama the "anti-business" President? Don't we hear businesses complaining about the excessive regulations, uncertainty, and high taxes created by this administration? Shouldn't Obama be winning hands down with voters in the public or education sector and unions, but getting trounced by those from the small business community? If anything, the President is holding his own among small business voters and, depending on which report you read, he's beating Governor Romney.
So why is President Obama still popular with small business owners? Here's what I hear:
1. "We're From Obama-land."
For starters, can we trust the voter data? The Yankees can't trust that umpires will make an accurate call. Jack Welch can't trust the way the nation's unemployment rate is calculated. And I certainly don't trust the Nielsen ratings; How in the world could Elementary be one of the most-watched shows in the country? I've never even heard of it! The data behind the voter surveys needs a little closer scrutiny. Dell, for example, polled business owners in Chicago land (because that's where its event was) and Chicago and is, of course, Obama territory. Other companies that sanctioned these polls did so with outside polling firms, I guess. Do you know who they are? What questions were asked? Who they actually spoke to? Where these respondents are located? I can't walk 100 yards in my suburban Philadelphia neighborhood without tripping over an Obama-Biden sign. If I took that same walk in a suburb of Denver I'm sure I'd be tripping over a ton of Romney-Paul signs...and getting shot at in the process! There are anywhere between 20 million to 30 million small businesses in this country. I got a C+ in statistics in college so I'm no expert. But I'm pretty sure none of these polling organizations are taking a representative sample. How could they? I'm not picking up the phone at dinner when they call. Are you?
2. "I don't have a safety net like the big, small guys."
And about those 20 million to 30 million small businesses. How are they defined? Is a company "small" when it has 100 employees? 500? This is important because President Obama is a populist. He reaches out to the middle and working classes. He's the anti-rich guy. There are millions of "small" businesses that are truly small--shops and restaurants and home businesses that employ fewer than 10 people. These are people generally earning less than those he'd define as "wealthy," and who fit right into his target audience. To this group, the President has talked about the importance of small business and, over the past four years, has proposed a myriad of incentives, job creation packages, and tax relief. Small business owners have no employer to look after them. They are scared about the economy, scared about losing that one big customer, scared about how old the Fonz looks in Kevin James' new movie. The "don't worry, the government's got your back" speech appeals to many in this group. I don't personally buy into it and I don't agree with many of the President's ideas. But his heart's in the right place. So I get his appeal.
3. "The pollsters never asked my opinion."
The ones who definitely don't buy into the Obama's "heart's in the right place" thinking are not small business owners. But they're not big business people either. They're the medium guys. Those are the guys that run companies with more than 10 employees. These are the guys (women too, of course) who employ a full time human resources administrator (now that's when you know you're no longer a "small" business)! I meet and speak to thousands of these people and they--I can tell you anecdotally--generally despise the President. That's because they're probably making enough to be classified as one of the "wealthy". They're sitting on their cash (which they did indeed build on their own) because they don't want to take the risk to invest, expand, and hire in these "uncertain economic times." They resent the government getting into their affairs. I'm not sure many of these guys are part of the surveys conducted. That's because they're not a good story. The good story is the struggling landscaper who's trying to feed his family or the cute single lady who started her own cupcake business ("Cake Baby," of all things)--and then got into a big mess when she was asked to be the maid of honor at her best friend's wedding until all was made right when Wilson Phillips sang that annoying song and she hooked up with that cop with the Irish accent. Angry-upper-middle-class-medium-sized-businesspeople running companies that employ 150 people and manufacture corrugated containers just don't make as good a story...or poll respondent.
4. "We're doing just great, thank you very much."
Let's not forget that no one can really speak on behalf of "small business." Oftentimes, as someone who writes and talks to groups about small business issues, I will get asked: "So...how is small business doing?" How does one reply to that? "All 20 million are doing just fine, Chuck, thanks for asking?" If you're a small business in the education industry, or running a restaurant near Washington D.C., or providing contract services to a firm that's received stimulus money, or getting government grants to perform alternative energy research, then you're liking President Obama. If you're in the oil and gas or financial services industries--um, not so much. I'm not sure who's being asked these questions in all those polls, but I'm betting the poll results have a lot to do with that too.
Finally, I'm getting a lot of this from the small business owners I speak to: "whatever." That's because so many of us are tired of the promises, weary of the partisan bickering, and out of patience with our politicians across the board. We've heard the assurances before. And like each episode of Homeland where we think Carrie the CIA agent is going to finally nab Brody the terrorist, we're once again disappointed. We're not convinced that anybody's going to change anything too much for the better or worse, so we're resigned to stick with who we know (i.e. President Obama) because at least we know what we're going to get. We're just a tiny fragment of the world so what impact do we have anyway? We've got other pressing things to worry about, like where our next vacation will be, or if Jonathan will play goalie for his under 11 soccer team next year. That national debt? Health care reform? Competition from China? Hopefully those problems will just sort themselves out, right?
See? President Obama, the scourge of Wall Street, the demonic anti-business President, has his supporters among small businesses. I'm not sure if I'm one of them, but I understand why others would be.
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GENE MARKS is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.