Uber has pulled political strings before, but this weekend it endorsed a political candidate for the first time. The company is throwing its support to Derek Armstrong, a Republican campaigning for reelection to the Nevada state assembly.
Uber’s endorsement is, of course, designed to protect its own business. Armstrong last year helped to pass legislation that legalized ride-hailing in Nevada, ending a bitter fight by the taxi industry to keep both Uber and its competitor Lyft out. The bill received votes from both parties, but in the current election cycle Armstrong is being attacked by his Democrat opponent, Ozzie Fumo, for having backed it. Fumo’s supporters have mailed provocative flyers that allege Armstrong fought against criminal background checks for Uber and Lyft drivers and “put Nevada women and children in danger.”
Uber does, in fact, conduct criminal background checks; what Armstrong contested is having ride-hailing drivers submit to the same fingerprinting requirements as cabbies.
On Oct. 30, the company jumped in. It sent emails to riders and drivers in Nevada with the subject line, “Re-elect your Assemblyman Derek Armstrong this election.” It added a message to the Uber app reminding residents of district 21 to “head to the polls for early voting” on Armstrong’s behalf. It sponsored a new set of flyers, which thank Armstrong for creating “over 10,000 flexible work opportunities” in Nevada and feature military veterans who say they drive for Uber “to make ends meet.”
“Assemblyman Armstrong knows that Uber partners actually help make our streets safer,” Uber wrote in its email to drivers. “He supports you, which is why we are proud to support him.”
Certainly, companies have endorsed political candidates plenty of times in the past. But what’s striking in Uber’s case is how powerful just a little bit of campaigning could be. Uber is spending less than $10,000 on Armstrong’s behalf, but expects its emails and in-app message will reach 15,000 people in the contested district. That’s a big number in a district where the total population is estimated at just under 67,000. And what better time to ask people to vote for Armstrong than as they’re using Uber, something made possible in part by his efforts?
Not all of Uber’s past lobbying efforts have been successful—see the debacle in Austin, Texas, earlier this year. But the company’s overall record is strong and you can bet its politics get savvier every day.
Uber has millions of riders in the US and direct access to the smartphones in their pockets. With a small tweak to its app, Uber can send a message to a tremendous number of people on both ends of the political spectrum. So far, the company has made careful use of that. It has rallied users for support on local issues that pose immediate threats to its business. In September, it encouraged drivers and riders of all political affiliations to register to vote.
Uber has gone one step further in Nevada now. It’s worth wondering where—and to what ends—the company might throw its political weight next.