Before there was the Lincoln Bedroom, there was the other Lincoln bedroom. The former might be the ultimate sleepover—not available for rent, of course—but the latter, more modest arrangement proved early on the value of home sharing in the making of presidents. Or aspiring ones, at least.
Home sharing’s role in presidential politicking broke through in 2008 when a fledgling Airbnb enabled Barack Obama supporters to overnight in Denver for his historic convention acceptance speech. “I think we had, like, 80 people rent their places,” says Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky. Lodgings for working- and middle-class Americans wanting to engage with their candidate popped up across the city, bringing helpful extra income for strapped Denverites in the midst of the Great Recession.
Eighty Airbnb listings in Denver became more than 7,000 for the 2016 nominating conventions, while one presidential candidate spent $50,000 on staff lodgings through Airbnb. But these are in fact simply new twists on a nearly 200-year-old tradition of presidential contenders using home sharing to connect affordably with Americans.
As an Illinois lawyer and circuit court judge in the late 1830s, Abraham Lincoln traveled from county to county, renting spare rooms or even space on a floor, often sharing with at least one colleague. For Lincoln and other politicians traversing a largely rural America, bunking up was a must. There was no hospitality industry, just local residents happy to host travelers as a means of staying connected and making some extra income. “Nearly everyone on the circuit had a latch-string hung on their homes for hospitality for traveling lawyers,” writes Ronald C. White, Jr. in A. Lincoln: A Biography. “As Lincoln learned to practice law inside numerous small-town courtrooms, he came to know and be known by farmers and merchants by staying in their homes.”
Nearly two centuries later, home sharing remains a tradition in politics for the same reasons: connectedness and economics. Maybe a little more connectedness, a little less economics on the part of some of today’s politicians than back in Lincoln’s day. In 1976, then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter effectively moved his underdog campaign to Iowa, working his way into Democrats’ hearts by staying in their homes. Carter’s de facto upset win (placing second behind “uncommitted”) helped launch the caucuses to first-in-the-nation status, bringing Iowans a return of… three more decades of campaign-driven home sharing.
In 2000, Democratic frontrunner and Vice President Al Gore overnighted with families in Iowa and other states to shed his Washington-bred, prep-school background. “We were shattering fundraising records,” says Gore’s spokesman at the time, Jano Cabrera. “Staying with teachers, nurses and the like was not about safeguarding the coffers. It was about showing him directly aware of the concerns and challenges facing working families.”
Working families living in critical swing areas, of course. Per an account of one Gore homestay in Michigan’s Macomb County: “From the moment he awoke shortly after 6 a.m. in the home of sixth-grade teacher Claudia Amboyer… to his departure from the L’Anse Creuse Middle School North at 2:15 p.m., Al Gore plunged into the life of the students, faculty, parents and administrators who make up the school community.” The night before, Gore “had stayed up until after midnight, talking with Amboyer and her husband, Donald, about education—and laughing at” his Tonight Show interview, which aired that night.
Gov. Howard Dean’s love of home sharing for both connecting and penny-pinching still endears him to former staff. “All. The. Time,” says Emily Wurgaft. “He stayed at my parents’! He stayed at Steve Grossman’s,” referring to the former national party chair and Dean campaign chair. Colorado Democratic strategist Rick Ridder recalls a 2002 phone call with Dean: “Howard called me to discuss Colorado and US politics. During the call, I asked where he was staying. He admitted that he preferred to stay at supporter homes. I offered him our basement guest room. He accepted, so he came in early August and stayed the night. Two months later he came again.” Dean was still governor of Vermont during those basement stayovers. A year later, Ridder became the first manager of his 2004 presidential campaign.
Home sharing plays a key role in the making of presidential campaign staff, too. As New Hampshire Democratic party chair from 2000 to 2008, Kathy Sullivan hosted operatives who worked “for New Hampshire candidates or the coordinated campaign, but were placed in [the state] because their employers were going to run for president” and wanted staff with local experience, she says. Sullivan hosted folks “who eventually went on to work for [presidential candidates Sen. Bill] Bradley, Gore, [Rep. Dick] Gephardt and [Sen. John] Kerry.”
“There definitely is a long-standing New Hampshire tradition of folks opening their homes to staff and candidates,” agrees Ken Robinson, who managed Kerry’s 2004 campaign there.
Home sharing through Airbnb also is emerging as lodging option for campaign staff—if maybe faster among campaigns that have a special affinity for the sharing economy or the tech sector. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign spent nearly $50,000 on Airbnb lodgings as of the most recent filings. Sanders’ favored candidate for a Florida US House seat, Tim Canova, was the third biggest spender on Airbnb accommodations ($6,000) of all candidates for federal office in 2016, trailing only Sanders and Kamala Harris ($12,000) of California, the frontrunner for retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer’s seat.
Among the presidential candidates, after Sanders, Donald Trump’s campaign ranks a distant second in Airbnb spending at nearly $2,000; Hillary Clinton’s campaign spent $1,200. Sen. Rand Paul’s 2016 presidential and re-election campaigns together have spent about $1,700 on Airbnb.
From Denver to @GOPinCLE and @DemsinPhilly
The 2008 Democratic convention flipped the home sharing tradition on its head. After Obama’s speech was relocated from Denver’s indoor arena to the far larger Mile High Stadium, Airbnb helped rustle up affordable lodgings for the extra influx of Obama supporters. Instead of opening one home to a candidate looking to engage with the community, Airbnb opened dozens of homes to voters wanting to engage with a candidate.
Denver was Airbnb’s breakout moment. “The DNC’s billion dollar startup,” a CNN.com headline blared. Suddenly, in the thick of the Great Recession, Americans anywhere could make critical extra income by renting out all or part of their homes. Even today, 77 percent of Airbnb hosts in the US are listing the homes in which they live. Across the 10 largest cities in the nation, two in five Airbnb hosts say the extra income helped them avoid eviction or foreclosure.
Starting with Denver, cities likewise became able to reap more of the revenue from conventions that typically send many delegates and their wallets to the suburbs. Cleveland and Philadelphia media published guides for city homeowners looking to host convention goers. “[S]ome delegates will be housed far from [Cleveland],” one of them read. “They may be unhappy about that, because if you are coming to a convention in Cleveland you really don’t care to stay in Twinsburg.” Ditto Philadelphia: The DNC required 17,000 hotel rooms within a 30-minute drive; Philadelphia had only 11,000 within city limits.
Just prior to the Republican convention, the Cleveland city council voted to allow Airbnb to collect and remit taxes on its hosts’ behalf. Philly acted sooner, prompted by the Pope’s September 2015 visit as well as the looming convention. Then-Mayor Michael Nutter’s office led an effort to pass new pro-homestay regulations to help ensure that the revenue visitors brought would stay in the city.
Roughly 80 Airbnb guest arrivals for Denver’s convention in 2008 became nearly 2,000 for Cleveland and 5,200 in Philadelphia. Airbnb estimates that the typical Cleveland host earned about $1,500 during the city’s convention, the typical Philly host about $850.
The explosive scaling of the home sharing tradition also turned it into a presidential campaign moment. Republican candidate and Sen. Marco Rubio, as part of his tough-on-Cuba stance, called for the US do more to promote Airbnb properties there to help funnel US traveler dollars to residents, not to state-owned hotels. (The Pope’s 2015 tour made Cuba and Philadelphia two of Airbnb’s fastest-growing markets.)
At the same time, in the first big economic address of her campaign, Clinton recognized that sharing-economy companies are “creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation,” adding that their impact raises “questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.”
Clinton herself used home sharing to connect with her future voters in 1999 when, as a potential US Senate candidate in New York, she rented a house in the Finger Lakes region and toured the state fair. Republican-leaning Skaneateles rolled out the welcome mat: “Judi West of the Patchwork Plus quilting supply shop says: ‘If Mrs. Clinton comes in, I’ll be glad to teach her to quilt.’”
As Clinton’s Skaneateles stay proves, the candidate’s path to the people’s house has always run through people’s houses. And bringing the presidential homestay full-circle, anyone can now spend the night in a former candidate’s home: 429 W. Second Street in Lexington, KY was the last residence of one of Lincoln’s challengers in the tumultuous 1860 election, Vice President John C. Breckinridge. It is now an Airbnb listing.