Small business owners in swing states give debate edge to Romney


Our panel of small business owners from battleground states gave a clear edge to Mitt Romney in the first of three debates. (Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG)
October 4, 2012

President Obama and Mitt Romney made several direct appeals to small business voters during their first debate on Wednesday. Both candidates said their respective economic policies were designed to bolster small firms and disputed the impact of their starkly different tax plans and health care proposals.

So who delivered the most convincing argument to companies on Main Street?

Small business owners in each of the nine most closely contested swing states shared their thoughts with us immediately following the debate, and echoing the consensus among political pundits, most awarded victory to the Republican challenger.

Six of the nine commentators said Romney won the debate; only one of them calling it even a close contest. The remaining three business owners said the candidates tied. Meanwhile, Obama received a great deal of criticism for his lack of engagement and occasionally vague responses, and Jim Lehrer, the moderator, took plenty of heat for losing control of the debate.

Heading into the night, our panel consisted of one strong supporter of Obama, one strong supporter of Romney, one leaning toward Obama and one leaning toward Romney. The other five were undecided — however, shortly after the debate, two of them said they were now leaning toward Romney.

• Christopher Hytry Derrington - Wisconsin

CEO of Hyder Industries in Two Rivers

Employees: 37

Immediate reaction to the debate: “Romney scored big on style. Obama didn’t bomb, but Romney appeared stronger. And style is what this is about, since I doubt that anyone will change their mind based on the lack of detailed content presented tonight. Romney seem more confident that businesses will be move forward after the election and starting making growth decisions again, instead of sitting on the side lines.”

Biggest surprise: “Obama seemed tired and stared down at his podium too much. Maybe he was attempting to act presidential, but appeared to be on the defensive most of the debate.”

Who won the debate? Romney, handily

• Jessica Hadler Baines — Florida

President of American Business Group Business Brokers in Orlando

Employees: 1

Immediate reactions to the debate: “My clients have been greatly concerned with the direction our country has been taking. Republican, Democrat, and Independent, there has been so much confusion among small business owners as to the real plan each candidate has in solving our problems. They are tired about the spin from PACs and I simply do not know how owners will react to tonight’s debates. Which clear answers have been addressed? That, I cannot answer.”

Biggest surprise: “Obama. I was raised by a Democratic mother and Republican father, so imagine my world as a youth. As an Independent, I felt that President Obama was much more on the offensive tonight. Of course, Gov. Romney ran four years ago, but he appeared to be fresh and able to back up his claims this time around. Mitt was able to overcome the stereotype that he is a machine or robot; no stumbling, and he skillfully acknowledged his efforts to work with Democrats in Massachusetts.”

Who won the debate? Romney, handily.

• Olalah Njenga — North Carolina

CEO of YellowWood Group, LLC in Raleigh

Employees: 3

Immediate reaction to the debate: “I’m not impressed enough by either candidate enough to lean toward one or the other. It was refreshing to see contrasts in perspectives side by side, however, there were too many moments when a resounding yes or no was eclipsed by the storytelling and the lengthy explanations.”

Biggest surprise: “The civility of each candidate. No overtly unflattering remarks. No jabs on character or questionable innuendoes.”

Who won the debate? Romney, narrowly.

• Anne Zimmerman — Ohio

Owner of Zimmerman & Co CPAs Inc and Zimcom Internet Solutions, both in Cincinnati

Employees: 7 and 6, respectively

Immediate reactions to the debate: “It was interesting to watch if you want serious debate on current issues. Somewhat dry and often little difference between their stances on some points. Romney came across more clearly and stronger than I expected.”

Biggest surprise: “Romney claiming he doesn’t want to put in place any tax cut “that adds to the deficit.” He repeatedly said tonight that he will lower rates but offset that lost revenue by reducing credits and deductions with no specific references. Why bother? Aren’t we then just playing a shell game and not changing net tax paid by anyone at all? It is a new approach I haven’t heard from him before and doesn’t make sense - a lower rate but less deductions equals the same tax. Has he changed his overall stance on tax cuts?”

Who won the debate? Tie, pending fact checking on their respective arguments.

• Scott Sklar — Virginia

President of The Stella Group, Ltd. in Arlington

Employees: 10

Immediate reactions to the debate: “The debate was lively. But because of weak moderation, they were allowed to keep their points fuzzy. Some hard questions by the moderator would have made them be more specific. Obama scored some points on trying to tease specifics out of Romney. But Romney was no slouch and seemed more engaged in dialogue rather than mudslinging.”

Biggest surprise: “The closing argument of Romney that he will create all these jobs and lower the deficit magically - but fundamentally had absolutely nothing to back those giant politician promises.”

Who won the debate? Tie.

• Ron Nelson — Nevada

Owner of Pioneer Overhead Door based in Las Vegas

Employees: 5

Immediate reaction to the debate: “The moderator lost control. Mr. Romney was smug and somewhat rude and didn’t answer questions. Mr. Obama was to polite but did get more aggressive towards the end. Mr. Romney talked to his base and didn’t talk to all of us.”

Biggest surprise: “Jim Lehrer losing control.”

Who won the debate? Tie.

• Garrett Dolan — New Hampshire

Owner of Hale Bros., Inc in Seabrook

Employees: 3

Immediate reactions to the debate: “Mr. Lehrer was not a very effective moderator and was biased in his allocation and control of time in the president’s favor. He didn’t maintain control and the steer the direction of answers back to the subject matter of the question.”

Biggest surprise: “The President was defensive in his statements and at times seemed unsure of his answers. He never seemed to answer the direct questions posed to him. In 90 minutes, he was unable to defend his own record.”

Who won the debate? Romney, handily.

• David Van Ahn — Iowa

Owner of Heartland Investments and Insurance LLC in Urbandale

Employees: 1

Immediate reaction to the debate: “Romney explained very clearly how he would resurrect the vitality of the American economy in five points. His closing statement noted that new start-ups are at a 30-year low and that trend must be reversed. Fifty-four percent of small businesses pay ordinary income — this statement caused the president to retreat to Bill Clinton, who at my last notice was not the president.”

Biggest surprise: “The inability of the president to be specific, nor could he explain his point with out going back to his talking points.”

Who won the debate? Romney, handily

• Scott Graber — Colorado

Owner, San Luis Valley Brewing Company and San Juan Building Management Company in Alamosa

Employees: 32

Immediate reactions to the debate: “I’ve always been impressed with Obama’s rhetorical eloquence and passion, but tonight he looked like a whipped dog, on the defensive and dull - very surprising. Also, the contrast between Romney’s belief in folks at the state and local levels to find their own solutions to most issues versus Obama’s position that federal government is the solution provider stood out for m+e.”

Biggest surprise: “A lack-luster president on the defensive.”

Who won the debate? Romney, handily

Special thanks to Small Business Majority, National Small Business Association, National Federation of Independent Business, Wisconsin Small Business Development Center, Colorado Small Business Development Center and the Wake Tech Small Business Center for helping connect us with business owners.

Follow J.D. Harrison and On Small Business on Twitter.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he manages the Post's On Small Business blog.
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