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Survey Shows Presidential Candidates Miss the Mark on Small-Business Issues Independent, unaffiliated entrepreneurs will decide who wins the small-business vote in November.

By David Nilssen

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Joseph Sohm |

It's perhaps not a "yuge" surprise that the Republican nominee, Donald Trump (a businessman himself), enjoys significant support among entrepreneurs. However, in a recent survey of over 1,000 small-business owners, conducted by my company, Guidant Financial, in partnership with MyCorporation, many entrepreneurs revealed they're still undecided in this tumultuous political climate. With the overwhelming sentiment that the primary candidates have not yet fully addressed the concerns of small business, this constituency is still looking for compelling answers to issues ranging from the U.S. economy to taxes and health care. Considering that small-business owners plan turn out to the polls in droves, who will step up to capture the small-business vote?

Our survey, conducted April 27 through May 2, assessed the existing primary candidates in the Republican and Democratic parties and explored the issues of greatest impact to small-business owners -- a significant force in the U.S. economy as well as an extremely engaged segment of the electorate. Small businesses with fewer than 500 employees employ about half of the private workforce in the U.S., or roughly 56.8 million people, most of these in firms with under 100 employees. Much fuss is made over the political clout of Wall Street, but what about Main Street?

Highly engaged but still undecided

A full 94.35 percent of business-owner respondents stated they were planning to vote in November, with 4.54 percent undecided and a mere 1.11 percent not intending to cast a ballot. For perspective, the U.S. turnout in the 2012 presidential election was only 53.6 percent, trailing most developed countries.

Related: Should You Tell Employees How to Vote?

Despite these firm intentions to turn out in November, only 54.91 percent of entrepreneurs had made a definitive decision on their choice for president at the time of the survey. An additional 29.69 percent had narrowed their choices down to two, but a full 15.40 percent remained undecided (note that Ted Cruz and John Kasich were still campaigning when the survey took place.) Even more significantly, among self-identified independents and those unenrolled in a party, fewer than half had picked their candidate.

The front runners

Small-business owners chose Donald Trump as the candidate who would best address their needs by a significant margin: 44.36 percent, as compared to Hillary Clinton in second place at 16.39 percent. Similarly, if the election were to be held now, 43.58 percent of respondents would cast their vote for Trump, compared to Clinton at 19.11 percent and Bernie Sanders at 10.73 percent.

The survey participants chose Clinton as the worst choice for president at 36.95 percent, followed by Sanders at 26.09 percent (Trump came in third, incidentally, at 23.74 percent). However, given that about half of the survey participants self-identified as Republican and only 20.67 percent identified as Democrat, these results aren't much of a surprise. Of the registered Democrats polled, though, Clinton enjoyed a distinct advantage over her competitor in the primaries: 52.24 percent found she best addressed the interests of small businesses, as compared to 25.87 percent for Sanders.

Love or hate them, front runners Trump and Clinton shared one key characteristic: The survey participants found them the most likely to realize their campaign promises at 35.40 percent and 26.27 percent respectively. By contrast, only 6.88 percent thought that Sanders was most likely to accomplish his campaign goals, while 39.01 percent considered him the least likely to make those promises happen. (As a sign of the race's polarization, 28.97 percent of respondents said Trump's promises were least likely to come true, with 24.24 percent saying the same for Clinton.)

Related: How Leaders, in Politics and Business, Use Influence Instead of Power

Honesty doesn't pay -- but does dishonesty?

Entrepreneurs considered John Kasich, who has since dropped out of the race, to be the most honest candidate (29.68 percent), with Sanders a close second at 27.65 percent. (Trump followed at 25.85 percent, with Ted Cruz at 10.95 percent and Clinton at only 5.87 percent.) However, truthfulness failed to correlate with political support. Even though Kasich fared well on questions about his ability to follow through on campaign promises and only 0.67 percent of survey respondents thought he was the worst choice for president, he came in last as top choice for president among the then Republican primary candidates -- a tepid showing for an honest and proven executive.

The survey found Clinton to be the most dishonest among the candidates at a resounding 64.45 percent, although Trump placed second at 22.01 percent. Among women, this margin narrowed to 55.44 percent versus 30.57 percent. Registered Democrats tend not to share this opinion about Clinton, since only 16.29 percent found Clinton the most dishonest compared to 52.81 percent distrusting Trump the most and 30.34 percent for Cruz. Perceptions of honesty followed partisan lines, logically enough. Thus, to gain ground, Clinton in particular must convince the undecided of her integrity, if not her effectiveness.

Do small-business women love Trump?

The female survey participants considered Donald Trump the top candidate to address the needs of small business over Clinton. However, they supported him at a smaller margin at 38.74 percent compared to 44.36 percent overall. If the election were to take place today, 40.82 percent of the women surveyed would vote for Trump and 28.06 percent for Clinton (compared to 43.58 percent and 19.11 percent overall). Women also chose Trump as the worst choice for president, at 33.67 percent, demonstrating how he has tended to polarize voters. In sum, women do not love Trump as much as men do, and in a contentious race, this will matter.

Related: Women Owned Businesses: 4 Stats To Know

What issues will win entrepreneurs over?

Of the entrepreneurs surveyed, 87.20 percent felt that the presidential candidates had not focused enough on small business in their campaigns. What issues are keeping them up at night?

All across the board -- regardless of gender, minority status or political leaning -- small-business owners wanted to hear the presidential hopefuls address the topics of small business (66.23 percent), the economy (59.10 percent) and tax policy (53.95 percent), first and foremost. These entrepreneurs named those same topics as the three that would ultimately sway their vote, but in a slightly different order: At 62.97 percent, the economy took priority over all other matters, followed by tax policy at 44.69 percent and small business at 41.57 percent. Only one candidate, Hillary Clinton, lists small business as a specific campaign issue on her campaign site, which touches upon access to capital, tax relief and incubators to foster entrepreneurial skills, but this survey suggests that winning the small-business vote will boil down to putting forth the most compelling vision of how to grow the economy.

The one policy change that the respondents said would support small business was strengthening the economy, at 52.28 percent, followed by tax cuts at 19.35 percent. Overall, the most damaging policy changes they named were tax hikes at 41.41 percent, followed by an increase in the minimum wage, at 31.92 percent. Concern over tax hikes cut across party lines. However, opinions about minimum wage increases contrasted starkly by political party -- 40 percent of Republicans yet only 14 percent of Democrats claimed minimum wage increases would hurt their small business.

Independents up for grabs

As a real estate mogul, Donald Trump enjoys a natural kinship with entrepreneurs, who repeatedly cite his resume as a businessman as the reason for their support, as well as his outsider status. But will his business record stand up to scrutiny? What's more, his polarizing lack of political correctness can also work against him among women and minority businesspeople, leaving the door open to his rival Clinton, whose small business platform and reputation for getting the job done may very well win over undecided voters.

Small-business owners, with their strong voting records and firm intentions of hitting the polls in November, represent an untapped but potentially game-changing force in this presidential race, particularly if overall voter turnout comes in low. The significant numbers of undecided independent and unenrolled entrepreneurs suggest that this valuable constituency could tip the scales either way, and that the major party candidates will need to convince small business of the soundness of their economic plans above all.

David Nilssen

Entrepreneur, Investor, Author, Philanthropist

David Nilssen is the co-founder and CEO of Bellevue, Wash.-based Guidant Financial. The company helps entrepreneurs invest their retirement funds into a business or franchise without taking a taxable distribution or incurring penalties; it also aids business owners in securing Small Business Administration loans.  

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