There has been a lot of talk about Mitt Romney’s difficulty connecting with voters, but that can’t be true everywhere. Who are the voters he does connect with? I spent a morning recently in Columbus, Ohio, with small-business owners Philip Derrow and Rick Malir.* They aren’t anti-Obama zealots, but nor do they begrudgingly accept the Republican nominee. They like Mitt Romney. They praise his smarts and his experience. Most important, they feel that he gets them—what they’re going through and what they’re trying to do. Their feeling can be summed up by twisting a phrase the Obama team likes to use to describe the president’s supporters: They think Mitt Romney has their back.
In the battleground state of Ohio, the National Federation of Independent Business, a small business lobby, says 49 percent of Ohioans are employed by companies with fewer than 100 employees. Derrow and Malir are part of this demographic, and they have three obsessions: their employees, red tape, and the fear that they might lose what they’ve built.
Malir owns a string of 20 barbecue restaurants in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. He started the business with his wife in his garage. “When a politician stands up and says I created 40,000 jobs, now I’m just a dumb farm kid from Kansas, going really? I don’t remember that politician standing with me in my garage when I am worried to death I’m going to lose the house as I’m trying to smoke brisket. I don’t remember them standing there. If anything, they were giving me more forms to fill out.”
That is the only mildly heated thing either man says all day. Both men say they’ve “won the lottery,” as Malir puts it, by being born in the United States and having the success they’ve had. But it highlights two themes that run through our nearly two-hour conversation: They are nervous they’ll lose what they’ve got. And they think the people in charge of making health care, labor, and tax laws have no idea what people like them are trying to do—which is take risks, grow their businesses, and create jobs. “I learned recently that I’m a HENRY,” says Malir. “A High-Earner-Not-Rich-Yet. If you look at my 1040 what you’d say is, ‘that son of a buck is one rich dude!’ But what they don’t get is that because that money flows to personal income. I pour all of my profits back into the company, risking the money to create a better company and create more jobs.”
Often in conversation they retreat to first principles—reciting maxims about capital, risk, and productivity—as if the country has lost the most basic understanding of how to solve the problem of joblessness. That’s just how Mitt Romney talks. And it’s not how any of the other Republican presidential candidates did, which is why Derrow says he “stayed as far away as I could” from the other GOP contenders. “He gets the economy. He gets business,” says Malir. Later he marvels about Romney’s résumé, saying its details alone prove that he would be a great president: “Do you realize what a brainiac you have to be to get your MBA and your JD at the same time from Harvard? Then he founded Bain Capital. He ran the Olympics.”
Perhaps the greatest cultural disconnect they see with Washington is the charge that businessmen like themselves are only out to protect their profits. “We are not ruthless people. We care about our parents and our families,” says Derrow, voicing his support for Medicare and Social Security. “And yet, the math doesn’t work and so our political class talks about things that make no sense.”
When Derrow introduces himself and describes his company, he ends by saying “50 years and not one layoff.” Malir points out that he carries a book with pictures of his 400 employees, so that when he visits a restaurant he hasn’t been to in a while, he can greet everyone by name. Ask them how they survived the great recession and each will tell stories about doing everything necessary to keep from firing employees or reducing health benefits. “Everyone took a haircut,” says Derrow of salaries that dropped during the recession. “But since managers took a bigger haircut than everyone else, there were no hard feelings. It hurt but we survived. The demonization of business people as being shortsighted and all these evil things just isn’t borne out by any of my experiences with fellow business owners.”
Do they think that Romney feels the way they do about people like their employees? The question doesn’t make sense to them. Of course he does. They know he understands that any business wouldn’t thrive without a good relationship with its employees.
These men don’t despise Obama. They don’t nurse grudges about the president’s foreign apologies or how he plays too much golf or uses teleprompters. They don’t talk about the president much at all. “I don’t hate the president,” says Derrow. “I think his policies are bad for the country. But there’s no animus there. I am actually pretty proud of my country for electing an African-American with an Islamic name shortly after 9/11. I think that’s a remarkable statement about this country. OK, but I disagree with his policies. It’s time to change.”
One thing they do admire is the president’s political skill. “I saw people that looked like Phil in the audience,” says Malir pointing to his middle-aged white counterpart, “with tears down their eyes. This guy has got something. He is connecting with folks, and it’s guys that look like me. Forget his policies. There’s a connection this guy is making. It’s scary because it was not the guy I was supporting.”
Both men already know how they are going to vote, but what about their employees? Will they do anything to sway their workers whose jobs both men think will be threatened if the current trend in anti-business regulations continues? Malir isn’t planning to do much, but Derrow is planning a mock debate for his employees in which they discuss the issues that are most important to the future of the company. Upon hearing that, Malir asks: “Can we cater it?”
Correction, May 22, 2012: This article originally misspelled Philip Derrow’s first name. (Return to corrected sentence.)