In a divisive season of "tea party" and "sanity" rallies, one constituency in particular has emerged as an interest equally and universally coveted by Democratic and Republican candidates: the nation's small-business owners.
The nation's estimated 25 million small businesses, perhaps more than any other group, have become the symbol of the economic problems that have shaped the midterm races. Republican and Democratic candidates have pitched their respective party's plans to help small businesses and revive the economy.
Polls show that the GOP pitch is playing better, a key reason that major gains are predicted for the party on Tuesday.
"I don't think the tea party will define these elections," GOP political strategist John Weaver said Thursday. "They did in some primaries, but the general elections will be more likely defined by the swing voters, and I include small-business owners in that group."
"The election is less about small-business owners than about how candidates view small businesses," said Democratic strategist Ben Tulchin, of the San Francisco-based Tulchin Research. "Democrats need to play to that broader audience and do a better job of convincing voters that Republicans are in the pocket of big business, then contrast that with [Democrats] being for middle-class families."
The political appeals have been anything but subtle.
"I'm a small-business man at heart, always will be," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican in line to be speaker of the House if the GOP wins a majority, said in a major policy address last month.
"Running a small business in Butler County was one of the proudest times of my life," he said, accusing Democrats of "strangling the goose that laid the golden egg" with their policies toward small businesses.
President Obama has highlighted his administration's efforts to assist small-business owners. During an Oct. 25 campaign appearance at a cord and webbing manufacturer in Woonsocket, R.I., he said, "When our small businesses don't do well, America doesn't do well. Over the past 20 months, we've done everything we can to boost small businesses like this one."
Mr. Weaver, a former chief strategist for Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, acknowledged that small-business owners traditionally favor Republican candidates. But he said this election cycle will be less about what the GOP can do for small businesses than what the Democrats in Congress have done during the past two years.
"The Democrats made [the] case for Republicans," he said. "We're going to win because of the factors that were out there, like [Democrats] losing focus and turning their attention away from the economy."
The depth of dissatisfaction was revealed in a survey last week that found 71 percent of small-business owners said they didn't think the government was doing enough to help them and just 16 percent said they had benefited from Mr. Obama's $814 billion economic-stimulus plan.
Such discontent also looks likely to drive small-business owners to the polls in unusually large numbers, with 93 percent saying they will vote Tuesday, according the survey by Sage North America, a California-based software-services company that targets small and midsized businesses.
Mr. Obama's signature health care law also is proving a tough sell for small entrepreneurs - 65 percent think the act will have a negative effect on their businesses, according to the survey of 528 Sage clients.
"It appears they're going to the polls in a nonpartisan way and picking the best candidate for small business," said Connie Certusi, a Sage senior vice president.
A separate survey last week by Discover Card Financial Services of 750 business owners with fewer than five employees found that 51 percent plan to vote for a Republican candidate, compared with 38 percent for a Democrat.
"The Republican Party comes out on top when it comes to which political party is better at understanding the needs of small-business owners," said Ryan Scully, director of Discover's business credit cards.
Complicating the picture is the sharp, public dispute between the Obama administration and the nation's leading business group. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose members include businesses of all sizes, has spent heavily this year on campaigns - mostly for Republican candidates.
The National Federation of Independent Businesses also has overwhelmingly favored Republicans in this cycle, including the GOP challengers to such top Democrats as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank in Massachusetts.
Keith Girard, author of the Business Intelligence blog at AllBusiness.com, said the business lobbies may have gone too far this cycle. The site is produced by Dun & Bradstreet.
"Small-business owners are far from monolithic in their political affiliation or their political views," he wrote last week. "The Chamber and conservative groups like the NFIB may have gone overboard in pursuing a political, rather than a small-business, agenda in the current elections."
Mr. Obama has tried to appeal to small-business owners since the start of his presidency in January 2009, roughly three months after the banking meltdown froze credit and prevented small businesses from getting loans.
The president last month signed into law the Small Business Jobs Act, which was created to expand lending and includes $33 billion in tax-incentive programs. He continues into the final days of the election cycle to try to win their votes for Democratic candidates.
Perhaps no other Republican candidate this election cycle has tried to win over small-business owners like Carly Fiorina, who is attempting to oust three-term Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat.
Ms. Fiorina, a former Hewlett Packard chief executive officer, has compiled a six-page jobs-creation plan that includes the elimination of the capital-gains tax on small-business investments and a two-year holiday on payroll taxes for small businesses that hire unemployed workers.
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