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How Could Renters Impact the 2020 Election?

By: Chris Salviati
February 25, 2020
  • Historically, voter turnout among renters has been significantly lower than homeowner turnout. That said, a wave of state and local housing measures have demonstrated increased political activity among renters. The degree to which the renter vote can be mobilized nationally could have crucial implications for the 2020 elections.
  • Renters, who are more likely to struggle economically, have decidedly more progressive views on the economy than homeowners. For example, among Democratic voters, 70 percent of renters favor increased spending on aid to the poor, compared to 57 percent of homeowners.
  • In the 2016 Democratic primaries, 46 percent of renters voted for Bernie Sanders, compared to just 34 percent of homeowners. With Sanders now emerging as the clear frontrunner among 2020 Democratic hopefuls, mobilizing the renter vote could secure him the nomination.
  • Although the renter population heavily favors Democrats, 39 percent of renters identify as independents, and their votes have the potential to swing the general election. These independent renters tend to hold progressive views around economic equity that would seem to align them with Democrats.
  • If renter turnout had matched homeowner turnout in 2016, Hilary Clinton would have won the general election. The 2020 elections could be decided by whether or not candidates are able to effectively activate this large untapped voting bloc.

Introduction

Although renters comprise nearly a third of the voting-eligible population in the U.S., their voices remain underrepresented in American politics. Voter turnout among renters is significantly lower than that of homeowners, and as we’ve previously shown, increasing that turnout could have drastic implications.1 If renter turnout had matched homeowner turnout in the 2016 presidential elections, Hillary Clinton would have won four key swing states — Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — giving her a comfortable electoral college victory.

Given this potential to swing elections, renters represent an important untapped voting bloc. Although the renter population encompasses a variety of distinct groups with specific needs, housing issues and related issues of economic insecurity bind renters together politically. Mobilizing renters has the potential to shift the preferences of the electorate, but renters’ have not been a group that politicians have traditionally courted, and their political tendencies are not well understood. 

However, this may be changing, as political participation among renters has shown signs of gathering steam. Across the nation, renters have been making their voices heard through a recent wave of state and local housing measures. The efforts of politically active renters have recently led to a statewide rent control measure in California, a package of strong tenant protections in New York, and the formation of Washington, D.C.’s first tenant’s union. At the same time, a growing YIMBY movement has been tackling the housing crisis from the supply side, resulting in major upzoning reforms being passed in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Oregon, with a number of other states battling over similar proposals.

This flurry of activity at the state and local levels has now caught the attention of politicians on the national stage. With the 2020 presidential election cycle in full swing, nearly all of the Democratic candidates -- with the notable exception of Joe Biden -- have released plans aimed at solving the nation’s housing affordability crisis. That said, housing has not been treated as a top issue in the primary debates thus far, and candidates are not focusing on the issue as a central pillar of their campaigns. While presidential candidates are beginning to recognize the importance of housing issues, it is far from clear that they will be able to rely on increased turnout from renters.

But with the outcome of the election still far from clear, there is still plenty of time for candidates to energize a coalition of renters who are concerned about their economic security. We’ve analyzed survey data from American National Election Studies in order to better understand what differentiates renters’ political views and to predict which candidates would stand to benefit most from increased political engagement among renters.

Among Democrats, renters are more progressive than homeowners, but only when it comes to the economy

Renters are far more likely than homeowners to vote for Democrats, but even within the Democratic party, views differ meaningfully between renters and homeowners. Specifically, we found that among self-identified Democrats, renters tend to hold more progressive economic views than homeowners.

This distinction is likely attributable to the fact that renters are far more likely than homeowners to struggle economically. Half of renter households are burdened by their housing costs, while one-in-four spend at least half their income on rent. This monthly struggle to pay rent makes it extremely difficult for renters to build wealth -- the median renter has a net worth of just $5,200, compared to $231,000 for the median homeowner. With economic issues top of mind, renters are significantly more likely than homeowners to support a strong social safety net and economic stimulus from the government. 

When asked at a high level whether they feel that the government should provide more services or fewer, 65 percent of Democratic renters favor increased services, compared to 56 percent of Democratic homeowners.2 Among Democrats, a majority of renters (54 percent) also agree that the government should see to it that all citizens have a job and a good standard of living, compared to 46 percent of homeowners.3 Importantly, these differences are not simply due to the demographic makeup of the renter population. In a regression model that also controlled for age, race, income, and party affiliation, we still found statistically significant differences between renters and homeowners on these questions.4

When Democrats are asked about specific areas of government spending, renters differ most from homeowners when it comes to areas likely to have a positive impact on those at the low end of the income distribution. A large majority of renters (70 percent) support increasing government spending on aid to the poor, 13 percentage points higher than the share of homeowners who think this is a good idea.5 In fact, this is the starkest divide between Democratic renters and homeowners among the survey questions we analyzed. Renters are also slightly more likely than homeowners to support increased spending on child care, although this is a fairly popular proposal among Democrats regardless of housing status.6 

Among issues with the biggest impacts on a household’s paycheck, one area where renters are not differentiated from homeowners is healthcare. 56 percent of Democratic renters think that medical expenses should be covered by a government insurance plan, which is exactly equal to the level of support among Democratic homeowners.7 This is notable, as single-payer healthcare has emerged as a centerpiece issue for current Democratic frontrunner Bernie Sanders. Although this issue is fairly popular with Democrats overall, this data suggests that health care is not an issue around which a renter coalition is likely to be energized.

Interestingly, the progressive tilt of Democratic renters seems to apply only to economic policy. When we look at data on social issues, disparities between renter and homeowner views are less predictable. Among Democrats, renters are more likely than homeowners to support marijuana legalization and reduced spending on crime and national defense. However, renters are less likely to support stricter gun laws and increased spending on environmental protections. 

What does this mean for the primaries?

The tendency of renters to support redistributive economic policies implies that progressive Democrats would have the most to gain by mobilizing the renter vote. This hypothesis is supported by evidence from the 2016 primaries, in which renters were significantly more likely than homeowners to vote for Bernie Sanders. 

In the 2016 Democratic primaries, we estimate that Bernie Sanders won 45.7 percent of the renter vote, much greater than the 34.3 percent share of the homeowner vote that he captured. Although Hilary Clinton still won the overall renter vote in 2016, the 2020 primaries are playing out with far different dynamics. While Sanders trailed Clinton substantially throughout the course of the 2016 primaries, he has emerged as the clear frontrunner at this stage of the 2020 primaries. 

Although owner vs renter breakdowns are not available for the early voting states, entrance and exit polls have shown Sanders performing well with demographics groups that overlap heavily with the renter population, particularly young voters and low-income voters. Sanders’ core message is centered around economic progressivism, and he generally views all major issues through this lens. While Sanders’ propensity to frame social issues in economic terms has sometimes been portrayed as one of the candidate’s weak points, our findings suggest that this type of message has the potential to resonate widely with a diverse coalition of renters.  

As the Sanders candidacy gathers steam, the degree to which renters are being energized in the Democratic primaries is still a bit unclear. Voter turnout in Iowa came in below expectations and the turnout in New Hampshire may not have been as strong as the raw figures implied. In Nevada, however, turnout is expected to be a new record high. The demographics of Nevada are also much closer to the nation as whole than those of Iowa or New Hampshire. It’s notable that in a state with high turnout from a diverse electorate, Sanders won by such a commanding margin. 

That said, only a small fraction of delegates have been pledged thus far, and the vote remains highly splintered. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, the moderate Democratic candidates (Buttigeig, Biden, and Klobuchar) garnered higher vote shares in aggregate than the progressive ones (Sanders and Warren). With healthcare emerging as a high profile issue for progressives and housing taking a back seat, it may be that progressive candidates are not emphasizing the aspects of their platforms with the most potential to mobilize the renter vote which favors them. 

What does this mean for the general election?

Whatever the outcome of the primaries, renters could arguably have an even greater impact on the results of the general election. The race could swing on which candidate is able to win the support of independent voters, and renters are significantly more likely than homeowners to fall in that camp. 

When broken down by party affiliation, homeowners are pretty evenly split between Democrats (34.0 percent), Republicans (35.7 percent), and Independents (30.3 percent). In contrast, renters who are affiliated with one of the two major parties identify as Democrats at a rate of more than two-to-one. At the same time, 39.2 percent of renters identify as independents, significantly higher than the independent share among homeowners.

In order to get a better sense of what type of message might sway this subset of the renter population, we analyzed responses from the same set of questions detailed above, and compared owner and renter responses among those who identify as independents. We find that although independent renters are a bit less economically progressive than those who identify as Democrats, they are still highly concerned about their economic security. In fact, the disparity between renter and homeowner views along these economic questions is substantially more stark among independents than among Democrats.

Among independent voters, renters are more likely than homeowners to support an expansion of government services by a 19 percentage point gap. Similarly, 51 percent of independent renters support increased spending on aid to the poor, compared to just 34 percent of independent homeowners. 

President Trump is likely to focus on the strength of the economy as a centerpiece of his campaign, while Democrats will highlight that the economic growth of recent years has not been shared equally. Although the stock market has hit record highs over the course of President Trump’s first term, it remains the case that barely half of Americans own any stocks, even in the form of retirement accounts. Incomes have grown fastest at the high end of the income distribution, and middle- and lower-income Americans have been disproportionately squeezed by rapidly rising housing costs. 

The data suggest that renters -- including those who identify as independents -- prioritize issues of economic equity. A Democratic platform that speaks to these concerns is likely to appeal to various demographics within the renter population, and also has the potential to win back some of the working-class white voters who constitute President Trump’s base. If the eventual Democratic candidate is able to effectively rally independent renters, their votes could prove extremely consequential.

 Conclusion

Although housing has gotten more attention in this presidential election cycle than it has in recent memory, it remains a relatively low profile issue. In failing to focus more pointedly on housing, Democratic candidates may be overlooking a major umbrella issue that has the potential to unite a diverse coalition. The renter population overlaps heavily with demographic groups whose turnout will be of crucial importance. Furthermore, when renters do vote, they heavily favor Democrats, and even independent renters hold fairly progressive economic views that would seem to align them with Democrats. 

There are a growing number of examples nationwide proving that renters can be mobilized around housing issues and that economic security is still of paramount concern to this large segment of the population. In many ways, housing lies at the root of the economic inequality that looms large in the minds of middle- and lower-income voters across the political spectrum. 

The ability to move for opportunity is closely tied to economic mobility, however a lack of affordable housing has limited access to many of the parts of the country with the strongest local economies. Furthermore, a decades-long focus on homeownership as the primary form of wealth creation has exacerbated economic inequality for those who have not been able attain this component of the “American Dream.” Even beyond economic issues, housing is a lens through which many of the nation’s major challenges can be viewed. Housing markets are inextricably tied to the history of racial inequality in America, and developing our cities in sustainable ways will be crucial to mitigating the effects of climate change. 

Renters have shown an appetite for increased political engagement when rallying around local housing issues that speak to their immediate concerns. This renter voting coalition remains largely untapped in national politics, but could be a boon to candidates that are able to effectively speak to renter concerns. If renters can be motivated to show up at the polls in higher numbers than they have in the past, their votes have the power to swing both the primaries and the general election.

Footnotes


  1. In the 2016 presidential elections, 49% of voting-eligible renters cast a ballot, compared to 67% of homeowners. Although renters report lower levels of political engagement than homeowners, turnout is also impacted by the fact that homeowners have added financial incentives to vote, since local policies have the potential to impact their property values. Renters also move more frequently than homeowners, and therefore face additional hurdles in maintaining active voter registrations.
  2. The exact wording of this survey question is as follows: “Some people think the government should provide fewer services, even in areas such as health and education, in order to reduce spending. Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1. Other people feel that it is important for the government to provide many more services even if it means an increase in spending. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7. And of course, some other people have opinions somewhere in between, at points 2,3,4,5, or 6. Where would you place yourself on this scale, or haven't you thought much about this?” Response values 5-7 are coded as favoring increased government services.
  3. The exact wording of this survey question is as follows: “Some people feel that the government in Washington should see to it that every person has a job and a good standard of living. Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1. Others think the government should just let each person get ahead on his/their own. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7. And, of course, some other people have opinions somewhere in between, at points 2,3,4,5 or 6. Where would you place yourself on this scale, or haven't you thought much about this?” Response values 1-3 are coded as favoring a government jobs guarantee.
  4. We ran a set of binomial regressions in which agreement with the given statement was regressed on a set of dummies for party affiliation, race, bucketed age, bucketed income, and homeownership status. Coefficients on the renter flag were statistically significant at the 0.1 percent level for questions on expanding government services, government job support, increased government spending on aid to the poor, and increased government spending on child care. The renter flag was not statistically significant for the question on government-sponsored health insurance.
  5. The exact wording of this survey question is as follows: “Should federal spending on aid to the poor be increased, decreased or kept about the same?”
  6. The exact wording of this survey question is as follows: “Should federal spending on child care be increased, decreased or kept about the same?”
  7. The exact wording of this survey question is as follows: “There is much concern about the rapid rise in medical and hospital costs. Some people feel there should be a government insurance plan which would cover all medical and hospital expenses for everyone. Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1. Others feel that all medical expenses should be paid by individuals, and through private insurance plans like Blue Cross. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7. And of course, some people have opinions somewhere in between at points 2,3,4,5 or 6. Where would you place yourself on this scale, or haven't you thought much about this?” Response values 1-3 are coded as favoring a government insurance plan.
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