Renters Could Be an Emerging Swing Vote This Election

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A ‘For Rent’ sign hangs in front of a building in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City.

But this year there are ballot measures across the U.S. focused on renters’ issues, and a number of candidates have made affordable housing a main plank in their platforms. That could motivate more voters living in rentals to show up at the polls in bigger numbers than in the past, some political analysts and economists have said.

“Analysis shows that renters do have significant potential to swing elections and have a distinct set of needs,” said Christopher Salviati, housing economist at Apartment List. “Thinking about them as a distinct voting coalition is increasing.”

U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, all Democrats, have each proposed separate legislation aimed at easing affordable housing crises across the country.

Several ballot measures in California, including one that would allow cities and counties to expand rent control, offer more evidence of renters growing as a political force, Mr. Salviati said.

In analyzing 2016 election data and survey information, Apartment List found people living in rental housing made up about 30% of the eligible voting population and homeowners comprised nearly 70%.

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Renters were less engaged politically, with 49% of eligible renters showing up at the polls compared with 67% of eligible homeowners. Turnout rates have remained relatively steady for the last two presidential elections with a more notable increase in renters’ voting rate in 2008, according to Apartment List’s analysis.

Those who live in rental housing tend to be younger than homeowners, make less money and are a group made up of more minorities than homeowners, the report said. Homeowners also are drawn to the polls by local issues affecting their property values.

In 2016, renters were significantly more likely to vote for Democrats in the presidential and congressional races. Hillary Clinton won the renter vote by 30 percentage points, the report showed. Researchers estimated that if renter turnout had matched homeowner turnout in 2016, Mrs. Clinton could have won an electoral college victory and the presidency.

Additional analysis controlling for factors such as age, gender, race and income still revealed renters leaned Democratic by 10 percentage points in the presidential election and by 9 percentage points in the Senate and House races, Apartment List economists estimated.

Sources: Census Bureau; Federal Election Commission; American National Election Studies; Apartment List calculations

The lack of affordable housing across much of the U.S. has become a hot political topic in several city and state races. California could be a test case to see if renters turn out at higher rates than usual, said Jenny Schuetz, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a policy-research organization.

In addition to the proposal to expand rent control, California has other statewide measures that aim to fund and preserve affordable housing “They [renters] could have some real impact on ballot initiatives,” Ms. Schuetz said.

She also noted that the three U.S. senators proposing legislation to address renters’ issues come from California, New Jersey and Massachusetts, where housing costs are among the highest.

“In this election year, policy makers are awakening to the force of renters’ concerns,” Ms. Schuetz wrote in a recent article about the Senate housing proposals.

But some are skeptical that campaigns and politicians are courting renters as a distinct voting bloc. While campaigns may be data mining and microtargeting voters, Republican strategist Charlie Gerow said he hasn’t seen any evidence of an emerging renters voting bloc.

“Where that model gets you into trouble is the belief that any voting group is monolithic,” Mr. Gerow said, “because they’re not.”

Write to Keiko Morris at