Who Gets New Hampshire's Small Business Vote?

The New Hampshire primaries are only a day away. And in a state with approximately 800,000 voters, one block in particular will have a significant effect on the results for both parties: the tens of thousands of small business owners – and the hundreds of thousands of people who work for them (according to the Census Bureau). What are they thinking as they head to the voting booths Tuesday?

The issues they face certainly aren’t new. A slow growing-economy is a recurring theme.

“Continued growth will be the biggest concern for my firm and our clients,” says Angela Martin, a partner at a Portsmouth law office. Her firm, Devine Millimet, has worked with more than 450 New Hampshire small businesses over the past five years.

“The economy continues to rebound, but on a slow pace,” she says. Martin is concerned about the state’s aging population and the challenges keeping younger workers in its stagnant manufacturing and technology sectors.

Architect Christopher Carley, who runs C.N. Carley Associates in Concord, agrees.

“My business is directly related to the health of the construction industry,” Carley says. “Investors and business managers need a high level of confidence in their prospects to make the leap of faith it takes to design and build. They need to believe that their income situation will continue to be healthy in order to create more business for us.” Carley thinks that New Hampshire’s regulatory complexities are greater than in other parts of the country and inhibit growth.

“New Hampshire is seeing slowing growth,” warns Jayme Henriques Simoes, who is president of Concord-based Louis Karno & Company Communications. “Declines in our workforce, housing and our aging infrastructure are taking its toll. We are linked economically to Boston, but there is no rail service to link Nashua, Manchester or Concord and that is a problem for business and for attracting younger people to locate here.”

Health insurance resonates, too.

Although a recent Kauffman study found that New Hampshire’s premium increases, at about 6%, is less than the national average for 2016, many small business owners are concerned about future increases and the long term sustainability of the Affordable Care Act. For example, Tina Annis, an attorney in Concord, happily reported a decrease in what her firm has been paying for health insurance recently – but she is worried about the future.

“Health insurance is still very expensive and it continues to be an issue that concerns us. It remains one of our costliest items. And if the ACA is completely repealed [as some candidates support] we’re concerned that we’ll have even [fewer] choices and our healthcare costs will increase.”

Pam Peterson, who owns a small clothing company called Gondwana & Divine, also struggles with health insurance.

“We need more options in the marketplace. Come this November we will be paying a very high premium for the older individuals on our staff. Currently our business covers 100% of health insurance premiums for eligible staff but I’m not sure we will be able to continue this forever.”

“The lack of affordable healthcare and the complexity, uncertainty and frequently changing rules of the ACA are among my clients’ biggest concerns,” John Ela, a management consultant based in Manchester, told me. Like the others, Ela believes that the high cost of healthcare affects both the state’s aging population and its ability to attract younger, more skilled workers.

Can the next president solve these problems for the state’s small businesses? The reaction is mixed.

Carley is optimistic.

“Small business is the golden goose of the U.S. economy and this is a chance to return to an approach of policies that promote growth,” he says. He adds that whatever happens, change will take time, saying that “…the effects of most activity in Washington dribbles down slowly to the provinces.”

And others, like Peterson, aren’t feeling so sure: “I have less faith now for big changes in America than I have had in the past.”

Simoes, always the entrepreneur, isn’t sure whether the candidates can solve all the state’s problems but one thing’s for sure: the primaries have been good for his business. “We’ve picked up several primary related accounts,” he reported. “And that adds to our bottom line.”

So what can the candidates learn?  Growth and healthcare loom large in the minds of New Hampshire small business owners.  And they can expect to hear the same issues from the other 20-30 million small business owners (and voters) around the country before this primary season comes to an end.