Most presidential election polls show challenger Mitt Romney with a solid advantage over President Barack Obama among small business owners. But recent surveys indicate the gap may be narrowing while a significant number of small business owners say they haven't decided which, if either, candidate would be good for business.
A national poll conducted in late September and released earlier this month found small business owners favored Romney over Obama 47 percent to 35 percent.
A separate poll this month from George Washington University and Thumbtack.com -- an online marketplace for small businesses -- found 39 percent of small business owners supported Obama, while 31 percent favored Romney.
About a quarter of small business owners in both polls remained undecided, far higher than the percentage of all voters who remain undecided.
Bryan Marshall, a political science professor at Miami University, said it's difficult to draw conclusions about why business owners lean one way or the other, politically.
But, he said, any increased business support for Obama likely stems from the recent rise in consumer confidence.
"The more positive outlook by small business owners reflects the more positive outlook that consumers have," Marshall said. "Those are small businesses' customers ... they drive 70 percent of the economy."
Steve Hightower, an Obama supporter and chief executive of Middletown-based Hightowers Petroleum Co., said the national distributor's sales have grown nearly 200 percent since the president took office in 2009, which has allowed him to add eight new employees.
"We've continued to add customers and make new hires in the petroleum business, so I don't know how I could say his policies have hurt me," Hightower said. "I know certain sectors aren't doing as well, but most of the businesses I talk to are doing much, much better with a bigger bottom line."
Hightower said he'll vote for Obama because he believes Romney wants to repeal many of the policies that have helped his business grow.
"I don't want to undue a positive trend," Hightower said. "All of these things that Romney wants to come in an undue would be extremely regressive for the business climate and have us starting from zero."
In sharp contrast, Romney says the Obama administration's policies have been the main impediment to business growth, and he continues to pound the president on issues such as taxes, regulation and the cost of the president's signature health care law. The overwhelming majority of small business owners contacted for this story agreed.
Regardless of their political leanings, growing jobs and the economy was the No. 1 concern for many small businesses in and around Butler County.
Dr. Michael Moorehead, who has owned and operated Hamilton Eyecare Center since 1988, said he was "very surprised" to hear the George Washington University and Thumbtack.com poll showed more small business owners supporting Obama instead Romney.
"I tend to believe Romney before I would Obama, just on the trust issue," Moorehead said. "Second, I believe Romney's plan that he is touting emphasizes much more about supporting small business."
Romney's experiences in business and his track record as governor has shown he has the best interests of small business in mind, Moorehead said.
"He worked in a very strong, bipartisan way with his government to accomplish not only implementation of health care but balancing the state budget and seeing the incomes of people in his state increase and unemployment decrease," he said.
Roger Conner, who has owned Flowers by Roger in Middletown for the past 38 years, said he too was surprised to hear the poll's results.
"We have been extremely short-changed since the Obama administration (took office) and it doesn't seem to be getting any better," Conner said.
Lack of jobs in the past four years has resulted in a trickle-down effect with more people watching their money.
"We're a luxury business," he said. "People don't have to spend money on flowers. They're trying to find money for groceries, gas and electric bills, and home. There's not much left for frills."
The economy as a whole has reduced the amount of disposable spending enjoyed by small businesses and four more years of President Obama would mean even less of it, he said.
Conner, who reduced his staff from 11 to six employees in the past four years, is concerned that a second Obama administration would mean workforce reduction as a result of even higher taxes for small business owners and the extra cost undertaken by them as a result of higher healthcare costs as the president's Affordable Care Act is implemented.
Dillman Foods owner Steve Dillman agreed.
"Increased taxes on small businesses will be the death knell of many businesses like mine and it also will drastically inhibit hiring," said Dillman, a lifetime Middletown grocer. "The health care situation has drastically inhibited hiring only because of the uncertainty of what we will face. No one seems to know what the cost for business will be in providing (health care)."
While Dillman said he believes Romney and Obama are both supportive of small business, he said the last four years has seen "a lot of additional red tape and regulation."
"From my point of view as a small business owner, that isn't really necessary," Dillman said. "It also seems to create a bureaucracy of enforcement."
In addition, there has been a trend toward punitive measures for small businesses who do not adhere to complicated regulations, instead of helping small business owners to understand and follow them.
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