Rocking The Vote

In the New Economy, as old loyalties shift, entrepreneurs' votes are up for grabs

With an MBA from the University of Michigan and nearly a decade of experience as a Wall Street investment banker, J. Peter Bardwick considers himself "a real conservative `dollars' kind of guy," the kind of voter for whom economic interests are paramount. Currently the COO and CFO of Inc., a Foster City (Calif.) online marketing startup with 70 employees, Bardwick, 41, has been studying the business agendas of the Presidential candidates, and he is close to making a decision.

An easy vote for Republican George W. Bush, right? Guess again. Bardwick, it turns out, is a registered Democrat who says he's "leaning toward Gore."

Al Gore? The business-bashing Vice-President who vows to use the power of the federal government to fight for the "people" against the "powerful"? "You have to separate the New Economy from the old one," Bardwick says. "On balance, Gore seems friendlier to the New Economy."

Welcome to party politics, New Economy-style. For decades, small-business owners have been among the Republican Party's most reliable supporters. But in this election, that age-old pattern is looking a little frayed, due largely to executives like Bardwick. "These are not traditional businessmen, and they haven't built their businesses in traditional ways," says Republican pollster Ed Goeas. Nor do they necessarily support the traditional small-business agenda. Taxes and regulations? New Economy entrepreneurs would rather see action on immigration, education, and intellectual-property issues. Republican versus Democrat? "Both parties are probusiness," says Steve Crummey, CEO of Inc., a Woburn (Mass.) startup that provides intranets to small companies. "The question is, who is going to drive us to greater heights?"

For traditional small-business groups, like the National Federation of Independent Business, the answer is simple. Such groups strongly back the Republican Party and its antitax, antiregulation agenda and are giving record sums to support GOP candidates (page F.10).

But NFIB members are largely Old Economy, brick-and-mortar businesses, says Mary Crawford, the group's director of communications. In the economy at large, things look different. In a recent national poll, 37% of respondents who defined themselves as small-business owners were identified as Republican, compared with 28% Democrat and 28% Independent, according to Republican pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick. Following the 1996 election, by contrast, 50% of small-business owners identified themselves as Republican. "The bifurcation isn't there anymore," Fitzpatrick says.

That's no secret to either of the candidates, both of whom have fashioned centrist small-business agendas steeped in New Economy rhetoric (page F.12). Both Gore and Republican rival George W. Bush support increasing the number of visas for skilled immigrants, more investment in education, research and development tax credits, and a ban on Internet taxation. "The differences actually are pretty small," says Erik R. Pages, policy director for the nonpartisan National Commission on Entrepreneurship.

So, many entrepreneurs are scrutinizing the issues where the candidates do differ--such as their economic plans. Take David Geller, 41, president of Geller Financial Advisors, a 50-person Atlanta firm that specializes in estate planning for high-net-worth individuals. Geller, who remains undecided, has been studying Bush's proposed $1.3 trillion tax cut--and is worried about the effect it could have on inflation and interest rates. "It makes me nervous," he says. "Low interest rates help me as a business owner. And they help my clients."

If tax cuts are no longer the slam-dunk they once were, neither is the perennial issue of reducing federal regulations. "OSHA is not a problem for us," says Wade Randlett, 35, co-founder of 95-employee, a year-old San Francisco application service provider for small businesses. Neither are labor regulations or the minimum wage. Instead, Randlett worries about visas, R&D funding, and securities and accounting rules governing stock options--issues he believes favor the Democrats. Indeed, Randlett also heads, which sponsors monthly fund-raising dinners with Democratic lawmakers. "Once you become a successful entrepreneur, you don't have to become a Republican to find someone to support your interests," he says.

Not everyone agrees. Paul A. Baier, 34, CEO of Inc., a Boston online marketplace for industrial products with 65 employees, subscribes to the same political agenda as Randlett, but after eight years of Clinton-Gore, he's ready for a change. "I've been wildly unimpressed with the Democratic leadership," he says. Still, Baier is hardly what you'd call a dyed-in-the-wool activist. In 1996, he left the GOP fold to vote for the Reform Party candidate, Ross Perot. "It's less about ideology than pragmatism," Baier says. For entrepreneurs moving at Internet speed, that may be all the political philosophy they need.

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