Carolyn Kaster, File, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Small business is almost always an issue in presidential campaigns. This year, it's morphed into one of the biggest.
Getting the backing of the small business community is important for most political candidates. Small company owners are often influencers: They are well-known in their cities and towns and they employ voters with a vested interest in the challenges that they face.
The Republican Party and Mitt Romney have been talking about small business for months, focusing on voter concerns like taxes and health care as small business issues. Small business was a dominant theme for a stream of speakers at last week's Republican National Convention. And "We built it" was a convention slogan — a response to a statement by President Barack Obama that, the GOP contends, reveals his insensitivity to small business. Even Ann Romney got in on the act during her speech designed to bolster her husband's campaign, proclaiming that he wasn't handed success, but instead, "He built it."
Along the way, the president and the Democratic Party have fought back with their own campaign stops and videos that tout how much the president has done for small business — including cutting taxes and proposing legislation to help small companies create jobs. The Democratic convention schedule, so far, doesn't have the heavy focus on small business that the GOP did, but Jim Sinegal, co-founder of a small business that grew to become warehouse retailer Costco Wholesale Corp. and Small Business Administration head Karen Mills were scheduled to speak on Wednesday night.
Small companies are in focus because they employ about half the country's workers, or nearly 60 million people. That's a pretty big bloc of potential voters and both sides realize it. The slow economy is hurting business and job growth and that has intensified interest in capturing those votes. Both the Republicans and the Democrats are eager to win over business owners and their employees by promising help — and by warning that their opponents will hurt businesses.
"The phrase 'small business' encompasses the mom-and-pop store, but even somebody who owns a company with 300 employees can think of themselves as a small business," says David Primo, a professor of political science and business administration at the University of Rochester.
The groundwork for a small-business focused campaign was laid in the winter and spring, starting with Obama's budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. It included higher tax rates on wealthy individuals — up to 39.6 percent for households making $250,000 or more. Republicans and small business advocacy groups like the National Federation of Independent Business criticized the plan, saying it would hurt many business owners. Obama proposed a cut in the corporate tax rate, and the GOP came up with its own proposals. Then there was the battle over the health care law that Obama won in the Supreme Court.
Republican campaign speeches this year have focused on how Obama's tax and health care plans were hurting small businesses, and stopping them from hiring more people. Romney told small business owners in a conference call in June that Obama's polices are "an anti-business, anti-job agenda."
The rhetoric intensified after July 13, the day Obama gave a speech that included this sentence: "You didn't build that." Romney and the GOP have seized on the quote as an example of Obama's lack of awareness about the challenges small business owners face.
The president and Democrats say that he's being quoted out of context. This is the White House transcript of Obama's remarks:
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