The survey was given to leaders of companies with 500 or fewer employees during the first two weeks of October -- when President Bush and Senator John Kerry were meeting in their final two debates. Of the 530 participants, 86% reported under $1 million in annual sales, and 81% said they had five or fewer employees.
DREADED UNCERTAINTY. When asked to identify the three most important issues facing small- and medium-sized businesses in the U.S. today, 65% named health care, 34% chose jobs, and 30% identified inflation. But when asked to identify the "most important issue driving how you will vote in the upcoming Presidential election," Iraq was the top answer, with 23% pinpointing it as most important, followed by terrorism with 19%, and health care at 18%.
The focus on internationaltroubles over domestic business issuesdoesn't surprise Roger Herman, CEO of Herman Group, a Greensboro (N.C.) consultancy and publisher of the weekly HermanTrend Alert. "One word describes the problem: uncertainty," he says. "Small-business owners hate uncertainty." Confusion over what the future will bring means small-business owners can't confidently expand, count on absent National Guard employees to returnto work promptly, or take advantage of opportunities that have arisen due to the improving economy, Herman says.
The survey didn't ask participantshow they planned to vote in the election. It did, however, ask, "Whichcandidate will be best for your business?"Fifty percent said Bush, while 45% pointed toKerry, and 5% gave a thumb's up toRalph Nader. When asked which political party they feel is most able to help small- and medium-sized businesses succeed, 44% named Republicans, and 40% said Democrats, a difference within the survey's four-point margin of error.
"EMOTIONAL HOT TOPIC." Although national pollsshow a majority of Americansbelieve President Bush is the stronger candidate when it comes to protecting the country from terrorism, Herman says small-business owners' uncertainty about security doesn't necessarily mean they'll vote for the incumbent. "It cuts both ways," he says. "Some that I have talked to are supporting Bush because they feel it's better to stay the course and keep the same commander in place for the future. But others say they don't believe Bush is an effective leader, and they don't agree with some of the people whosurround him."
Sami Jajeh, a principal atDemandG, a marketing consultancy based in Atlanta, says personal considerations like security will outweigh business concerns when he goes to the polls next week."There are three principals in our firm," he says. "One leans left, one leans right, and one is in the middle. Given the environment today, it's less likely that we're going tovote mainly on business issues."
Yet David Pearce Snyder,a trend analyst and futurist based in Bethesda, Md., says he doubts that mostsmall-business owners will put aside business issues in this year's election."I've traveled the country and talked to small-business owners for 20 years, and right now they're worried about the economy and health care like crazy,"Snyder says. "The war is ahot emotional topic, but it's hard to believe small-business people are really going to make that their primary issue. They tend to vote their wallets. For these people, it's still 'the economy, stupid.'"
NET NEWS JUNKIES. The survey also asked about sources of political news. A somewhat surprising34% of respondents rely primarily onthe Internetfor national political information, despite the fact that 43% reported that they don't havea companyWeb site. TV was the second-most-cited political news source, at 26%, withnewspapers at 18%, radio at 7%, magazines at 3%, and 12% saying they don't use the media fornational political information.
Those surveyed were also asked to identify political Web sites they had visited in the past two months. A majority -- 57% -- said they hadn't visited any. Of those who had, sites sponsored by the candidates outperformed all other choices given.Some16% selected www.johnkerry.com,15% said www.georgewbush.com,13% pointed to www.jibjab.com(the site that distributed the This Landpolitical Web cartoon),12% reported www.c-span.com,11% said www.democrats.org, and4% selected www.rnc.org (the site of the Republican National Committee). Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues