Thursday night's Republican presidential debate was remarkable not only for the candidates' sudden tone of civility, but also because it underscored the election season's lack of real messaging on small businesses and the economy.
Real estate billionaire and Republican front-runner Donald Trump's key message seemed to be that voters should elect him because he's a businessman who knows how to get things done. Texas senator Ted Cruz said he'd create millions of high-paying jobs by removing taxes on business exports. And Florida senator Marco Rubio suggested he would cut Social Security and Medicare, and would move to a merit-based system for granting green cards so we attract only the best and brightest to create a more resilient economy.
But like the Democratic candidates, who throughout their campaigns have focused on growing the economy largely by redistributing wealth through higher taxes or other business incentives, the Republicans are missing a vital opportunity to talk turkey about the economy and connect with small businesses--a group that not only comprises vital job creators, but potentially a critical voting bloc.
"Too little attention has been paid this presidential year to the crucial role that new businesses play in getting the economy, and the number of new jobs, to grow faster," writes Hector Barreto, a former head of the Small Business Administration, in an opinion piece for the The Wall Street Journal this week.
Barreto writes that the economy polls as the top concern for more than half of Latino voters, whose unemployment rate exceeds the national rate of 4.9 percent by more than a full percentage point. For the broader population, a recent Gallup polls finds the economy is also the top issue voters want to hear about from the next president, cited by 17 percent of respondents.
Further, as Barreto and others highlight, there are some 28 million small businesses in the U.S., about 6 million of which employ workers. And firms with less than 500 workers make up 99.7 percent of all businesses in the country. So why are the candidates so tone-deaf about addressing issues that concern them?
"It's a little odd. You would think they represent voters, and that the messaging [of presidential candidates] would be a bit more targeted to them," says Craig Everett, an assistant professor of finance at Pepperdine University and director of the university's Capital Markets Project.
Part of the reason may be that small businesspeople do not represent a monolithic voting bloc, Everett says. While they represent a large cache of potential voters, according to the university's quarterly polling, they are pretty evenly split between the two major parties.
There's also a huge variety in business type. There are more than 20 million non-employer businesses; although this figure includes people who have created jobs for themselves, many of them may not even identify as business owners, according to this reporter's research.
Votes are there for the taking
Certainly the various candidates have paid lip service on their campaign websites. Rubio, for example, says he'd help business owners by paring back on regulations, cutting the top small business tax rate to 25 percent, and by weakening unions. For her part, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has declared herself the small business president, and has promised to help small businesses by providing tax relief, reducing regulatory red tape, and unlocking access to capital. Still, she has offered little specificity about her plans.
So far it's Trump who seems to be resonating most with business owners, Everett says. More than a third of nearly 2,500 business owners polled by Pepperdine in February said Trump had the best polices for business, followed by 18 percent who said Clinton, and 12 percent who favored Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.
Yet Trump's strength with business owners is largely the result of his being an entrepreneur himself, the Pepperdine researchers say. For the remainder of the election cycle, the votes of a large bloc of job creators could be anyone's for the taking, if they can improve their outreach.
And that's also the point of Barreto's editorial.
"My message to all presidential candidates: Listen to small business. Listen to entrepreneurs, and to those in economically challenged populations who hope to become business owners," Barreto writes. "They'll be listening to you, and they'll be deciding whether you earn their vote."