Business people, including farmers and ranchers, have traditionally played a prominent role in the political leadership of the United States. From the country's earliest days, when the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention were largely populated by men who owned and operated their own businesses, business owners have participated extensively in public affairs at all levels of government. But over time, their position has eroded. They have been replaced, at least in part, by people from other backgrounds including the ubiquitous professional politician whose sole occupational function is to shape public affairs. Still, business owners continue to participate, if for no other reasons than civic duty and/or protection of their business interests. The questions are: how much? And, how often? Thus, this issue of the National Small Business Poll is devoted to Political Participation.
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Voting and Office-Holding
Small-business owners express considerable interest in public affairs and politics. Forty-two (42) percent say that they are highly interested (Q#1). Another 41 percent say that they are somewhat interested. (Public affairs and politics was defined for respondents as elections—partisan and nonpartisan— referenda, bond issues, lobbying and other civic activities.) Thus, over four of five indicate more than a passing interest in the topics. Just 7 percent contend that they are not at all interested.
Small-business owners participate in aspects of public affairs and politics extensively; in other aspects, they participate minimally. Most notably, small-business owners vote. Ninety-five (95) percent report that they are registered to vote (Q#2). Most who are registered to vote claim to do so regularly. Sixty-one (61) percent always vote and another 23 percent usually vote (Q#3). Those numbers add to 84 percent of the small employer population who say they typically vote. Even if a portion of these positive answers consist of socially desirable response, small-business owners vote considerably more frequently than the public as a whole. In contrast, the Presidential elections, the elections most likely to generate a large turnout, result in about 50 - 60 percent of the adult population voting. Only 5 percent of small-business owners say that they never vote, about the same number as those who are not registered.
Small employers not only typically vote, they also run frequently for public office. Three percent say that they ran for public office in the last four years (Q#4). That means about 175,000 small employers have run in the period. The number of elected offices in the United States is huge, particularly at the local level. Estimates run as high as 520,000. Since running for office is not the same as being elected to office nor is the number of people running for them known (or at least cannot be found), it is not possible to estimate the proportion of either candidates or elected officials who are small-business owners. Still, it is fair to conclude that they are likely to be disproportionally represented (high) among both groups.
The survey did not determine what those offices were nor the level of government in which they were located.
Government has numerous boards, commissions, etc., that serve in an administrative or advisory capacity and are appointed by elected officials or elected bodies. People appointed to those panels typically have some substantive qualifications and political connections. In other words, they usually have been politically active or, at least, financially supportive. Five percent of small employers been appointed to such an office over the last four years (Q#5). The five percent is not mutually exclusive of those who have run for office.
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Small employers often contribute financially to political activities. Forty-three (43) percent have contributed to support or oppose a policy issue, a candidate for office, or a PAC (political action committee) over the last four years (Q#7). They contributed to a median of two different causes, candidates, etc., though the average number of contributions was somewhat higher. Twenty-four (24) percent gave to just one and another 28 percent to two (Q#7a). Seven percent say they gave to seven or more. These frequent givers constitute three percent of the population or 175,000 owners.
Most contributions are small. Fifty-three (53) percent gave less than $1,000, which spread over four years amounts to less than $250 a year (Q#7b). Just a small group appears to contribute large sums. Three percent of contributors, or about 1 percent of all owners, gave over $10,000.
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The participation of small-business owners in political campaign activities can be summarized in two observations: first, the proportion that is highly active is small contrasted to that which avoids them entirely. The largest proportion, however, does a little, on occasion. Second, small-business owners seem to prefer more passive, less visible, and less time-consuming types of activities to those exhibiting the opposite characteristics.
In addition to voting, running for elective office, holding appointive office, and financially contributing, the survey asked small employers about the extent (frequent, occasional, none/never) to which they participated in 12 different types of political activities over the prior four years (from mid- 2002). These activities include: displaying a bumper sticker or button; canvassing or participating in a telephone bank; lobbying a public official; engaging in a demonstration, boycott or protest; attending a political event, such as a speech, rally or convention; circulating or signing a petition; asking friends/relatives for a vote/support; joining or renewing membership in a political party; displaying a sign on the premises; membership in organizations that take political/policy stands; writing letters-to-the-editor; and, initiating discussions with employees about a policy issue that impacts the business.
Most small-business owners involve themselves in modest amounts of political activity or none at all. Three percent participated in at least six of these 12 activities frequently over the last four years. These are the “political junkies.” At the other extreme, 53 percent did none of the 12 frequently and another 23 percent did only one of them frequently. However, if the standard is lowered to include “occasional” as well as “frequent” participation, the number involved rises steeply. Nineteen (19) percent, under a changed standard, engage in at least six activities and only 30 percent engage in one or none. The later figure rises to 45 percent if the number of activities is two or fewer. The number of activities in which owners participate is highly correlated with voter registration, voting frequency and propensity to make financial contributions. The more different public affairs or political activities one participates in, the greater the likelihood that he or she will also do these more common things.
Small-business owners are more likely to participate in political campaigns or campaign-type activity in passive ways, particularly ways that do not consume much time and are not visible. The most prevalent of these is the exception in that the activity is not passive. A form of political involvement, not necessarily unique to small-business owners, is engagement of employees (subordinates) in discussion of policy issues affecting an owner’s business. Twenty (20) percent say that within the last four years they frequently initiated discussion(s) with an employee or employees on a policy matter affecting their firms (Q#6L). Another 31 percent did so on occasion. Thus, about half took issues affecting the business directly to employees.
Membership in organizations with a policy bent also constitutes a means of political involvement in which a large share of small-business owners engage. One in five (20%) say they are frequently members of organizations that typically take stands on public issues (Q#6J). (The National Rifle Association, the Sierra Club, and NFIB among others, were provided as examples of such organizations.) Another 25 percent say that they belong to some. These figures correspond with an earlier poll in this series on membership in business organizations. However, an attraction of many organizations, even those with a policy bent, can be professional development or industry-specific knowledge rather than politics or policy. Membership is not necessarily stimulated by interest in public affairs, but in improving personal skills and business prospects, etc. Thus, while the frequency of such membership is a broad measure of political activity, it is also muddled.
Membership in political parties is a different matter. Twenty-six (26) percent contend they belong to a political party, at least occasionally, an extraordinarily large number given that few Americans are formally a member of one (Q#6H). More likely, many who contribute to a partisan election campaign or who identify with a party claimed membership when participation would have been a more appropriate term.
The most politically visible small-business owners tend to get is the passive display of political preference. For example, 11 percent frequently displayed a bumper sticker or wore a button for or against a candidate or an issue during the last four years (Q#6A). Another 16 percent say that they took such a visible public stance occasionally. Similarly, 14 percent claim to have frequently displayed a sign at home or on the business premises over the last four years supporting or opposing a candidate or a policy issue (Q#6I). Another 25 percent say they did so occasionally.
Small employers lobby public officials periodically. Nine percent frequently lobbied a public official(s) for or against a public policy or policy issue over the last four years (Q#6D). Another 24 percent did so on occasion. In that time frame, therefore, just short of two million small-business owners chose to express a view directly to a public official. The survey did not determine whether those contacts were written, made by telephone, or in person. However, a prior publication in this series (Contacting Government) suggests that the modes of communication with public officials are highly varied.
Other common political activities drew moderate amounts of interest. Seven percent claimed to have circulated or signed a petition frequently in the last four years (Q#6F). Another 28 percent did so on occasion. Seven percent frequently attended a political speech, campaign rally, or political convention in the last four years (Q#6E). This group of owners is likely the most committed. Speeches, conventions, etc., require time, and the individual must fit his schedule to the event rather than the opposite. They also typically involve expense. However, since it is almost impossible to avoid all political speeches if one participates in any community activity, another 25 percent say that they also attended such events on occasion. The third form of activity of this nature is telephoning or writing friends, family or associates asking for support or opposition to a candidate or policy. Eight percent report they did so frequently with 20 percent less frequently (Q#6G).
Small-business owners participate in the most time consuming and visible political activities least frequently. For example, just 2 percent frequently canvassed or worked a telephone bank (Q#6B). Another 6 percent did so occasionally. Similar percentages took part in a political protest, demonstration or boycott (1% and 6% respectively) (Q#6C). Both consume considerable time and can be highly visible. A surprisingly large number, though small compared to other types of activity, wrote letters-to-the-editor. Five percent have frequently written over the last four years and another 15 percent say they have occasionally (Q#6K). No data was collected on whether the letter(s) was printed.
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Federal, State, or Local; Candidates or Issues
The political and policy interests of small-business owners appear broad and encompass activities at the federal, state, and local levels. They span jurisdictional boundaries and include candidates as well as issues. Fifty-two (52) percent of those who participated in any public affair or political activity within the last four years say that the activities in which they participated involved federal candidates, elections, etc. (Q#10). The hotly contested Presidential election conducted less than a year prior to the survey may have temporarily boosted activity at the federal level. Still, the extent of activity at that level is consistent with activity at other levels suggesting last fall’s influence on interest in federal activities, if present, added little.
Forty-nine (49) percent say they participated in elections, referenda, etc., at the local level (Q#8) while 48 percent say they did so with state level candidates and issues (Q#9). Owners of larger small businesses, that is to say, those employing 20 or more people, were much more likely to participate in local activity than others and much more likely to participate in local activity than in activity at other levels. Almost seven in 10 owners of these larger businesses did something locally in the last four years. The data offer no explanation for this behavior. However, it could reasonably be tied to greater leverage at the local level.
Just as small employer interests cross the levels of government, so do their priorities. Thirty (30) percent who participated in one or more of the listed political or policy activities over the last four years report that their efforts focused on federal level candidates and policy (Q#11). A similar number (29%) focused theirs on the local level. Fourteen (14) percent paid most attention to their state. But 19 percent volunteered that their activities were scattered across jurisdictions; their efforts were not directed at any particular level of government. Another 9 percent were undecided, implying that theirs, too, were scattered or negligible. All levels of government impact small business. It is, therefore, not unreasonable that owners focus on no particular level of government.
Small-business owner political activity was also spread between candidates for office and an issue or issues. Fifty (50) percent report most of their activities were directed to candidates and electing people (Q#12). Thirty-five (35) percent report their activities concentrated on an issue or issues. The remaining 15 percent could not decide which was prevalent. The recent Presidential election again may have tilted this distribution in favor of candidates. Still, small-business owners direct considerable attention to both.
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Attitudes toward Political Participation
Different influences motivate people to participate in public activities. While motivations are typically complex and not subject to a single reason, 39 percent of small-business owners report that their activities are stimulated primarily by an interest in improving the overall well-being of the area/state/country (Q#13). Improving conditions was mentioned more than twice as often as the next most frequently mentioned cause. The succeeding three were noted about equally often. Sixteen (16) percent cite a personal interest in politics or public affairs. Another 14 percent attribute their motivation to an interest in protecting or promoting their businesses. Eleven (11) percent want to solve a particular problem(s). However, 18 percent cannot cite a cause, suggesting that many have mixed motives or get involved without thinking about the reason for it.
Despite frequent dabbling in public affairs and politics, and for what they generally regard as selfless reasons, small-business owners hold a decidedly mixed view regarding their repute and probity. Most brutally, 58 percent agree or strongly agree with the assertion that politics is sleazy (Q#14A). Those who do not participate, or do so minimally, are no more negative than those who do. Exposure to the phenomenon, therefore, does not appear to influence one’s views. Similarly, half believe that you are expected to pay to play. Fifty-two (52) percent agree or strongly agree that they are expected to contribute or pay if they want to be effective in politics; 47 percent disagree or disagree strongly (Q#14K). However, the same people do not necessarily hold the same views about both. Complicating matters is the fact that many consider politics a positive social outlet. Fifty-two (52) percent agree with the idea that politics can be lots of fun and a good social activity; however, only 5 percent agree strongly (Q#14G).
A sense of duty appears to be the prevailing attitude toward public affairs and politics. Ninety-six (96) percent agree that every citizen has a duty to participate in public affairs even if it is just voting (Q#14F). Half agree strongly. The share that agree is higher than the proportion registered to vote. Even some of the non-registrants agree that they should at least vote, though some participate in ways other than voting. Small-business owners also believe their position in the community gives them a responsibility to participate. Eighty-one (81) percent agree with the proposition: business owners are leaders and leaders should lead in public affairs and elsewhere (Q#14J). Perhaps due to the question’s novel approach to their sense of duty, those just agreeing were three times as numerous as those strongly agreeing.
Small-business owners also exhibit mixed feelings about the impact of public affairs and politics directly on their businesses. For example, 68 percent agree that being active in public affairs can generate business, though only 11 percent agree strongly (Q#14B). On the other hand, 51 percent believe being too closely identified with policy issues and politics is bad for business (Q#14I). Further, 64 percent agree that political activity takes productive time away from the business (Q#14D). These attitudes leave the impression that owners consider a little bit of public affairs and politics to be all right for the business, but a lot is not good; some exposure is helpful, but high visibility pushes people away and takes valuable time from primary business objectives. Yet, they may have no alternative to involvement - up to a point. Seventy-five (75) percent agree that business people must participate in politics to protect their business interests; 20 percent agree strongly (Q#14E).
One characteristic of business owners is that they think they have significant control over the factors that influence their businesses. They often hold similar views about public affairs. Ninety-five (95) percent agree that positive change can occur if good people participate in public affairs; 40 percent agree strongly (Q#14H). These people are not fatalists, even when it comes to policy matters. The term “good” as used here has many meanings, of course, ranging from competent to saintly. But if good, whatever meaning the respondent cares to attach, people get involved, good things can happen.
A majority disagree with the proposition that one person can do very little to change the political landscape. Fifty-nine (59) percent disagree compared to 42 percent who agree (Q#14C). Here, too, small-business owners display their belief that people control outcomes. But, controlling outcomes is not necessarily easy. Ninety-two (92) percent agree with the proposition that ensuring good public policy is a constant struggle; 30 percent agree strongly (Q#14L). In other words, small-business owners believe positive change can be effectuated through the political system if good people participate.
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While most small-business owners have an interest in public affairs and politics, it is the interest of a fan rather than a player. They sit on the sideline for the most part watching, with an occasional foray into the game. Yet, they have a sense of duty to be present and do something to help their team. That spews forth on election day when small-business owners vote in huge numbers (relatively). Much less often, though still frequently, their interest and duty appear in the form of modest financial support for a candidate or a cause. It also commonly arises in the form of policy discussions with employees and membership in organizations with a policy bent. But when they do make forays into the game, those forays typically are passive with modest visibility and minimal time requirements.
About three percent are political junkies. These owners are intensely interested, frequently participate in many ways, and financially contribute larger sums to more candidates/causes. They find time to participate, initiate action, and may even relish the public exposure. Unfortunately, their small number in the population does not allow us to contrast their motivations for participation to other owners.
It is difficult to compare the public affairs and political activity of small-business owners to the general political apathy of the American public. The former vote with much greater frequency, contribute financially more often, and run for elective office in disproportionately large numbers. Small-business owners are also on the whole more educated than the American public, and more educated people are more likely to participate. It is likely that small-business owners are more active regardless of education level, but how much more is an entirely different issue.