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Payments And Commerce On The Campaign Trail

It is safe to say that the PYMNTS team members are not exactly political junkies or rapid partisans. A highly unscientific poll of our coworkers found that the average collection of people waiting for a bus in downtown Boston has a more cohesive political ideology than our staff, who are all supporting wildly different candidates for wildly different reasons.

Which is not to say we aren’t following the election – we are news buffs after all, since a staggering array of topics are relevant to payments people. It’s just that, truth be told, we mostly haven’t been following the presidential primary by choice up to this point. Mostly we just haven’t been able to avoid it because no matter what media stream you like, it’s there.

But we don’t have a political opinion, because politics isn’t really our business. We hope everyone votes and researches their choice before they do. From there, our preferences as an organization get a bit scattered — which is fine because we’re in the business of commerce.

Except that this election cycle has highlighted three things and all of them should be of interest and perhaps concern to our regular readers no matter who they intend to vote for:

1. Whether payments and commerce has a unified interest in politics, election seasons tend to draw politicians and politics to payments and commerce issues like a lightning rod attracts electricity.
2. Which issues get drawn to the lightening rod and bounced back at the American people can vary.
3. In this surprisingly silly election news cycle, random issues are popping up while some major issues are missing, or at least missing the mainstream media’s current narrative. But they might just be pushing the race invisibly from the sidelines.

So why should this information matter to you? Well …

Serious Issues Abound – As Does Silliness

So here’s the reality. Before you can get to anything even remotely related to the news of the day, you have to get through the endless reporting on the State of The Election; after all, it is primary season!

Need to know the weather?

You’re probably going to have to at least hear the soundbite of the day from Donald Trump.

Want to post that movie of your dancing cats on Facebook?

Probably going to have to see at least eight posts on the debate over whether Hillary Clinton is a hero to women everywhere or just totally misunderstood.

Want to know how the stock market is doing, what’s going on in China or the latest stage in the saga between Apple and the DoJ?

You may be stuck patiently waiting until the 20-minute Monday morning quarterbacking of the latest debate is over.

Now we’re not the first to observe that the race this year has started to resemble a reality show.

But in reality, when you start talking to the real people who operate businesses on the various main streets and side streets of Small Town U.S.A. — and we did (over 250 of them), the reality becomes a bit different.

Their reality is all about how anyone who aspires to live in the White House will help their continued existence.

Which they worry has gotten lost in the noise of the reality show that this campaign season has become.

And that makes them nervous about a future that is they feel – and the numbers support — surprisingly uncertain.

Discomfort Despite Good Progress

A funny thing happened on the way to the primaries from our perspective, thanks to the Store Front Business Index — a collaboration between CAN Capital and PYMNTS.com.

Our data tool operates on the assumption that if those main street businesses are doing well, then the local economies in which they operate will, too. Therefore, getting a granular view of their overall health is a good way to measure the economic health of the nation.

And, our data show some goods news, on the whole, for the Store Front Business scene, which is performing better than GDP – actually a lot better.

But not everywhere. And especially not in the States that have so far been the hosts of the Primaries.

And we went on the road in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Virginia to ask the local Store Front business owners how healthy they feel.

And what we found – 250 merchant conversations later – is a lot of anxiety about what comes next that doesn’t seem entirely reflective of a segment that is on the whole doing better than the rest of the economy.

Store Front business owners, no matter where they were, wanted to talk to us about access to capital — particularly to expand their businesses. The consensus we heard, from North to South, East to West, is that something that had always been difficult in the past has become an intractable barrier to expansion in most cases. That no one has mentioned this on the campaign trail is surprising to them, since the need to strengthen small businesses is usually a favorite stump speech talking point for both parties. Many expressed some hope that the Store Front business story, particularly around the impossibility of expansion, comes up more.

However, even though hope was thin and not a majority view, most businesses we spoke to, regardless of political affiliation, noted a lack of confidence that politicians really “get it” when it comes to their needs, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. What they credited that lack of understanding to depended on political affiliation, but special interest groups, Washington insider status and out-of-touchness with normal human beings were all popular answers.

So, Do The Campaigns Get It?

Armed with our merchant questions, we decided to see if we could get the campaigns, if directly asked, to tell us how they felt about American’s Store Front businesses and what they wanted to do for them.

Results were mixed.

Most of the campaigns we reached out to didn’t get back to us at all.

The Clinton campaign reiterated their support, in an email, of small business and intention to support them fully when Hillary is elected. However, since they asked us for a donation at the end, we’re pretty sure that was a form letter.

The Sanders campaign thanked us very politely for our interest, but noted that these issues, while vitally important to the Senator, were included under his bigger message about economic justice. Senator Sanders was apparently unconcerned or did not notice our question about what he intends to do about the fact that his message about economic justice is terrifying to a large host of small business owners who are pretty sure he is about to tax them into oblivion.

The Cruz campaign was not so polite. They have a policy of not dealing with news reports or data that was not presented to them by a mainstream source like The New York Times. We think this is a very reasonable position for the third place finisher in the last three primaries to take.

One campaign did have something to say – and a very powerful something — though we will hold off on their remarks until Super Tuesday, per their request.

So what have we learned that is worth passing on?

America — or at least the serious minded entrepreneurs of America — may be loving the Wrestlemania portion of this election a little bit less than CNN seems to think it does. Business owners aren’t having fun so much as they are worrying about their taxes and access to liquid funds and waiting for the policy part of this to start.

But, so far, the campaigns and the mainstream by and large don’t seem ready to talk to them just yet.

So we will instead.

Tune in Tuesday for our next round of conversations on the road, and the next glimpse of how the Store Front businesses of the U.S. are doing, even while no one is watching.

Plus, tune in to find out what the frontrunner has to say on the matter.

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Latest Insights: 

Our data and analytics team has developed a number of creative methodologies and frameworks that measure and benchmark the innovation that’s reshaping the payments and commerce ecosystem. The July 2019 Pay Advances: The Gig Economy’s New Normal, a PYMNTS and Mastercard collaboration, examines pay advances – full or partial payments received before an ad hoc job is completed – including how gig workers currently use them and their potential for future adoption.

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