Right up there with cheesy slogans and attack ads, praise for small businesses has become a staple of campaign season in Washington.
It’s likely to be the same again this fall, and with good reason. Congressional hopefuls, both incumbents and their challengers, can’t afford to overlook the nation’s smallest employers, not just because the rest of the country has a soft spot for them, and not just because it makes for sound economic policy.
Rather, small business owners themselves represent a key voting bloc — individually not with quite the sway of large corporations, of course, but influential just the same. Here’s why.
1. They vote
Only about three in four eligible Americans are registered to vote, according to most estimates, and barely more than half cast a ballot during the 2012 elections, according to research by the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Compare that to a recent poll of small business owners, which found that 97.5 percent are registered to vote. More importantly, while they aren’t quite as engaged in state and local elections, 97 percent of the more than 1,800 owners surveyed by the National Small Business Association said they vote regularly in national elections.
Multiply that 97 percent by the more than 28 million small business owners across the country, and those small employers appear to represent a relatively large, active chunk of the electorate.
2. They can be swayed
It’s no secret that political polarization is becoming more rampant across the country. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, a growing share of both Republicans and Democrats now view their counterparts as a threat to the nation’s well-being. Meanwhile, a poll by marketing firm Resonate taken earlier this year found that 36 percent of Americans tend to vote straight party lines on election day.
And while it’s tricky to make perfect poll-to-poll comparisons, it would appear that small business owners aren’t quite as one-party-minded. More than half (54 percent) of both Democrats and Republicans who responded to the NSBA survey said they “occasionally” vote for members of the opposite party, and 84 percent said they “regularly” or “occasionally” vote independent.
Moreover, only 17.5 percent of small employers said they vote straight party lines, leading researchers to declare that “no party owns the small business vote.”
3. They may be able to sway others
Sure, securing one individual’s vote is useful. But securing his or her vote, plus that of all of his or her employees — now, that can be a real windfall. And there’s anecdotal evidence that more employers and political groups have started to embrace that strategy, with owners trying to persuade their workers to vote for candidates they think will best serve the company’s interests.
In other words, secure the support of small business owners in your district, and you may score some extra small business employee votes, too.
4. They donate
It’s the other essential metric by which campaign success is measured — dollars. And on that front, small business owners can be useful supporters, too.
While far fewer than half of small employers have donated to a political party (38 percent) or issue-specific campaign (42 percent), they are much more likely to funnel money to a candidate. Sixty-nine percent say they have donated to an individual’s campaign, up from 63 percent in 2012 (the last time the NSBA conducted the poll). By all accounts, that’s much higher than the tiny fraction of the overall population that helps fund political campaigns.
5. They aren’t happy
Not many American’s are pleased with their elected officials at the moment, but small business owners seem particularly fed up. Only 7 percent say their representatives in Washington represent them well, while a mere 4 percent say they are pleased with the current political system. Most are less than pleased with members of Congress, including, for many of those who declared an affiliation, lawmakers from their own party.
Of course, that presents a golden opportunity for challengers this November — and a lurking headache for incumbents.