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It shouldn’t be any surprise that San Diego native John Nienstedt is drawn to politics and politicians: He went to a junior high named after a president, a high school named after another, and even as a kid wanted to understand how people think about issues. Now, as president and CEO of the Competitive Edge Research & Communication firm, he specializes in helping candidates understand voters.
“I am attracted to helping people win,” says Nienstedt, who’s done just that through his polling work for successful politicians like Mayor Kevin Faulconer. “We were able to accurately pin down how the community perceived the candidates and which issues to emphasize. We laid out the campaign.”
But Competitive Edge is much more than a political-minded outfit. It serves a variety of clients including cities and government agencies, utilities, businesses and nonprofits.
“It’s about helping people,” says Nienstedt, who co-founded the firm in 1987 after working on political campaigns and serving as an aide to a county supervisor. He’s been sole owner of Competitive Edge since 1991.
The firm is dedicated to helping people gather information to help them make decisions.
“One of the best ways to do it is through a well-conducted survey,” Nienstedt said. “The advice I give is not coming out of my head. It’s coming out of the data, which is correctly acquired and something I can have confidence in.”
Compelling statistics from Competitive Edge do more than help politicians understand voters. Among many other projects, the firm is proud to produce the monthly San Diego County Business Forecast in conjunction with the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and underwritten by Silvergate Bank.
“It’s a survey that takes a snapshot of how businesses feel about what’s going on in their business,” Nienstedt said.
It provides a picture of “how businesses are succeeding or failing,” he added. In addition to working with businesses and politicians, Nienstedt − who grew up in the Kensington neighborhood and went to Wilson Junior High and Hoover High − is especially interested in supporting the community in his hometown.
He’s thrilled that the firm, headquartered in a former homeless shelter, contributes more than $500,000 in wages to the local economy each year. And Competitive Edge is proud to have worked with the American Red Cross San Diego/Imperial County Chapter since 2010 to determine how local residents are prepared for emergencies: Do people have the supplies to deal with an emergency that could leave them isolated? Do they have a plan to get through an emergency?
The firm has developed an emergency preparedness index to let the Red Cross know which parts of the community are less ready for a crisis. “They can target their efforts more appropriately,” he says, rather than focusing on the entire population.
On a personal level, Nienstedt is Secretary of the Alzheimer’s Association San Diego/Imperial Chapter.
“My grandmother passed away from dementia when she was 99,” he said. “The last 10-15 years of her life were disappointing. It’s very important that we deal with it − not only the victims of the disease, but the folks who are in charge of taking care of them.”
Nienstedt is optimistic about San Diego’s future, although he acknowledges that the community needs to be more cohesive. Some research has shown that cities with higher levels of civic engagement were better able to deal with the recession, he said.
San Diego hasn’t scored well when it comes to civic engagement, but Nienstedt says the measurements may miss San Diego-specific events like the Over-the-Line tournament.
“People are meeting neighbors, interacting with other people in the community,” he said. “You’re making a community where there wasn’t one. There are many other kinds of ways to civically engage that might be particular to San Diego.”