Late last year, David McNeer, the owner of a small ad agency, took the stage at a Donald Trump campaign event in Newton, a city in central Iowa. In 2010, McNeer told the crowd, he’d appeared on 60 Minutes because his business cratered after a major client, Maytag, closed a nearby factory, sending many of the jobs to Mexico.
“I did not get one call from one politician,” McNeer said.
But McNeer did hear from one bold-faced name: Donald Trump, who promised work and delivered. Most recently, McNeer’s firm got the contract to provide Trump’s Iowa campaign with T-shirts, campaign signs, and buttons.
It’s not shocking, of course, that business owners would back the one business owner in the race. But they’ve proven over the course of this long campaign to be one of the strongest planks of Trump’s coalition—something that was true even last summer, when there were many, many Republican candidates to choose from. In multiple polls conducted by Manta, a social-networking site for small-business owners, Trump has repeatedly come out on top. In a survey asking about both major parties’ fields conducted at the end of February, Trump won with 34 percent, double that of Hillary Clinton, who came in second with 17 percent. OnDeck, an online lending platform specializing in loans to small businesses, found last month that 37 percent of its small-business-owner respondents felt Trump was the most likely candidate in either party to keep their interests in mind.
It goes on. Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management came up with similar numbers—just more than a third of the 2,469 small- and mid-sized business owners in a survey identified Trump as the candidate offering the best platform for small-business growth and support. When the Center for Public Integrity analyzed Donald Trump’s filings at the Federal Election Commission, it determined that the largest source of “identifiable” donations to Trump’s campaign—after those who described themselves as retired—came from people who self-identified as the heads of small- to medium-sized businesses.
Small businessmen and women also have one thing over the average American: They vote. Frequently. An astonishing 95 percent claimed to pull a lever in national elections, according to a 2014 poll conducted by the National Small Business Association. And they lean Republican, obviously—that same 2014 poll claims about 2 in 5 of them are members of the party, with the next largest group calling itself “independent.”
So it’s worth asking what has buoyed small-business owners’ support for Trump—which is why, last month, I sought out a handful of them, names I found in campaign contribution filings, news articles, and referrals from the people I interviewed. Not shockingly, they took some pride in seeing a businessman they consider one of their own making a run for America’s highest office. But they also shared some of the resentments that have fueled less-prosperous cohorts of the Trump constituency—over the economy, over rising health care and business costs, and, yes, over a sense that the government is helping people who don’t deserve it.
First, just as many Trump supporters identify with his swaggering business persona, his campaign has given an ego boost to the business owners I interviewed, with more than a few glomming to his combination of optimism, self-confidence, and conviction that someone’s doing them wrong. Their businesses deliver and so, they say, does Trump—never mind the few billion that separates them. “I see how he overcomes obstacles, and, as an entrepreneur, I have to cut through obstacles every day to get things done,” says Cherie Corso, the founder of G2 Organics, a Pelham, New York–based company selling health and wellness products. “He knows how to cut through red tape and get things done.” (Corso also says she lined up for a chance to meet him at last year’s book signing for his book Crippled America at Trump Tower in New York City: “He said, ‘you’re very pretty’ and I said ‘thank you.’ ”.)
Never mind Trump’s inconsistencies, what Slate’s William Saletan calls his “unpredictability dodge.” What journalists view as “evasions,” small-business owners see as wiliness and business sense. “I’ve done hundreds of deals. The last thing I am going to do is let people know what’s on my mind,” says Charles Biggert, the CEO of Nudawn Metal Fabrication in Tomball, Texas, who donated a little more than $600 to the Trump campaign, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
But then there’s the economy. It’s always the economy, right? Close to a decade after the start of the Great Recession, money remains tight for many small-business owners. According to Biz2Credit.com, an online lending platform, as of this March, the nation’s largest banks are approving less than 1 in 4 (23 percent) loans for small businesses, while smaller regional banks and credit unions are approving just under half. Forty percent can’t even raise money from high-interest alternative lenders. If they get money, they’re probably personally guaranteeing the sum. The Federal Reserve Bank’s 2015 Small Business Credit Survey reports a majority of small-business debt is secured by the personal assets of the owner—something that’s even true for firms with $10 million in annual revenues.
Whether or not small-business owners can rattle off such figures, they certainly have a sense of economic pain. “My sales have gone down steadily over the past 10 years, not by a huge amount, but again, what sales I have are getting eaten up by what I have to pay for workers’ comp, disability, and health insurance. I can’t pass the cost on to my customers,” says Robert Jones, the owner of Elcon Estimating Service, an electrical cost-estimating firm based in Dobbs Ferry, New York. Or there’s Jeffrey Collins, a Missouri-based serial entrepreneur who owns one construction firm, one solar-panel installation company, and a franchise of hair salon Knockouts—and who’s given $250 to Trump’s campaign. “The economy is horrible, no matter what the newspaper says,” he tells me.
Collins wants to see more jobs, but he doesn’t like government intervention either. “I want jobs for everyone. I don’t believe you are doing someone a favor by giving them welfare. I believe you are doing them a favor by giving them a job,” Collins tells me. Other say similar things. “In all my years in business, I’ve never been paid by a poor man. I am paid by someone who is rich,” Biggert says, adding a few moments later, “We have a lot of people in society today who want to ride the wagon, and they will stay in it as long as it rolls, but they won’t push it or make it roll.” Resentments fester. “I watch these politicians,” Collins says. “They don’t seem to have our best interests at heart.”
That sounds like the kind of sentiment an American who doesn’t own a company might have these days. Earlier this year, as David Sirota pointed out in the International Business Times, a Rand Corporation survey of voters planning to vote in the Republican primary found that people who agreed with the statement “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” were more likely to say they planned to vote for Trump than any other candidate. Even when times are good, many small-business owners see themselves as pushing back against the system as they forge their own path. Throw in tough economic times, and outright anger is the result. And angry Americans are powering Trump. In last week’s Indiana Republican primary, exit polls revealed that Trump voters were much more likely than Cruz or Kasich supporters to say they were worried about the direction of the economy and to use the word “angry” to describe how they felt about how the federal government was working.
We’ve been here before. When Ross Perot, the founder of multibillion-dollar technology company Electronic Data Systems, ran for president on the Reform Party ticket in 1992, he campaigned as a champion of small business. While many hear Perot’s opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement in Trump’s demand that the United States’ trading partners play fair, there’s another echo: that credit was tight in the wake of the real estate bust of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Perot said he would loosen regulations so the banks would once again loan money to small businesses.
Perot’s supporters had something else in common with Trump’s: They are disproportionately likely to be white. And that’s true of small-business owners, too. As of 2012, Caucasians made up 85 percent of all business owners in the 50 states, according to the Small Business Administration. But only 65 percent of United States adults can be described that way.
So does Perot’s campaign offer any hints of what’s to come? Well, Perot’s appeal worked—at least for a time. According to poll MasterCard conducted in the spring of 1992, more small-business owners supported Perot than either Bill Clinton or George Bush. (The chief executive officers of the United States’ 1,000 largest companies were less than wowed, however; a separate poll, conducted by Fortune, found they almost 4 out of 5 planned to vote for the incumbent president.)
As we all know, there never was a President Perot. Ultimately, his 1992 run was done in by his own wackiness (withdrawing and re-entering the presidential election didn’t exactly convey seriousness) and the United States’ historic unfriendliness to third parties. One other thing is worth mentioning: Even the entrepreneurs bailed on him. A poll conducted a few weeks before the election found small-business owners favored Clinton, followed by Bush.
Would Trump really do better? Well, yes. And maybe no. Now that he’s the almost-certain Republican nominee, he’ll avoid the structural pitfalls of a third-party campaign. But maybe there’s a more significant barrier. Many people—small-business owners and regular Joes—believe politicians lie and don’t believe they’re looking out for us. But when the time comes to enter the voting booth in November, if the past foretells the future, at least some voters will make the distinction between the business and political worlds and go for the practiced pro.
The political one, that is.