A big vote from small business owners

Visit electionday2012.wordpress.com for coverage from across New York City, and beyond.

On election day, my classmates and I will be reporting from the field, filing stories from across New York for our blog Election Day 2012. In advance of the big day, I checked in with small business owners in Ohio to see what they think of the people who claim to best champion their interests. Read the original post here.

In an election that may not be determined until the final hour, small business owners in Ohio have seized on the vital role they play in deciding who will be the president-elect.

“I’ve been with the NFIB 23 years, and I have never seen the small business community as energized and focused as it is on this election,” said Roger Geiger, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) in Ohio.

“They recognize what’s at stake for the nation and for the state.”

A national organization, the NFIB has 350,000 members across the country, 25,000 of whom own businesses in Ohio. The vast majority of member businesses in Ohio have fewer than 25 employees and less than $1 million in annual revenue.

Many small business owners who go to the polls today will be voting in line with their stance on healthcare reform and government regulation, both of which they feel have slowed growth in the Buckeye State, said Geiger.

“For the last 20 years, small businesses have been clamoring for health insurance reform. What they weren’t expecting was a broad new mandate with lots of taxes,” said Geiger.

“What they now feel like is you can require everybody to buy a Cadillac, but if you can’t afford it, it doesn’t make any sense.”

Both candidates have leaned heavily on their own supposed roles as champions of small business, referencing the term a record 25 times during the first presidential debate, and upping the number of shirtsleeves and jeans appearances in the last few days leading up to Nov. 6.

Geiger said this is a pattern to which small business owners in Ohio have grown accustomed, and their favor might not be so easily won.

“(During a campaign), every politician is for small business — it’s like being for motherhood and apple pie,” said Geiger. “But there’s a healthy amount of cynicism across the aisles about the rhetoric folks give to small business and what ends up happening when they’re elected.”

Many whom Geiger spoke with are still smarting from a remark President Obama made during a July appearance in Roanoke, Virginia, where he said that “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

“I don’t think the president did any favors when he said, ‘You didn’t build that,’ said Geiger. “I think a lot of small business owners bristled at that and felt there was a big disconnect between the president and the small business community.”

Though many small business owners in Ohio would favor the decreased government involvement that Mitt Romney has promised, an owner’s hometown can be another important deciding factor.

Most small businesses are located within 50 miles of where the owner grew up, and the Democratic trend in the northeastern quadrant of the state and Republican leanings in the western region run deeper than any one candidate or election cycle.

What is most important is the enormous sphere of influence small business owners hold, said  Geiger. The vast majority are familiar faces in community Little Leagues and Parent Teacher Associations, and instrumental forces in local philanthropy. And unlike those at larger companies, employees of small business see the owner every day.

“(Small business owners) have a huge sphere of influence—they’re the sleeping giant that hasn’t been awakened in recent elections,” said Geiger. “When you’ve looked at exit polling over the past few election cycles and asked voters ‘who do you trust?’, clergy always rates really high, then after that comes my boss.’”

Even as accounts have circulated widely of executives in larger corporations inappropriately pressuring employees to choose particular candidates, Geiger said NFIB Ohio has seen a major uptick in inquiries on how to legally and responsibly educate employees about the way the business climate would be under Obama or Romney.

Whether Ohio swings red or blue today is likely to depend on how these entrepreneurs view the dangers that each candidate might bring to small owners’ business.

“(Ohio small business owners) are held in very high esteem. The issue has been are they willing to use it?” said Geiger. “I think this election they are, because they’ve never felt as threatened.”

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