When USC student Madison Lin took a Lyft last December from a grocery store downtown to her home in University Park, she never expected to leave with new, in-depth knowledge of a presidential candidate.
She got into the Lyft, and as usual, started to make casual conversation with her driver, Gregory. He was a big, old Southern man, with a long white beard and booming voice. He reminded her of her mid-western grandfather. They made small talk about traffic, the weather, where they were from (her Oakland, him Nashville) until he casually turned the conversation to politics.
“So, have you heard of Andrew Yang?” he said.
The timing was immaculate. Lin thought it was definitely strategic of him to wait until after they knew a bit about each other. It wasn’t a long ride –– about 20 minutes –– but by the time he asked about Yang, the conversation was comfortable.
Lin already knew quite a bit about his background: He was a Nashville farmer and musician who was living in Los Angeles for a few months to record an album. In the meantime, he drove Lyft to meet people in the city –– and to promote his candidate of choice for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
She remembers Gregory telling her something along the lines of, “He’s a smart guy. He really understands what he’s talking about.” He told her that while Yang wasn’t as well known, if people got to know him, “They’d see how brilliant he is.” Yang had a lot of support in Gregory’s circles in Nashville, he told Lin, but most of his L.A. passengers didn’t know much about him at all, Lin included.
Knowing little to nothing about Yang, Lin used this opportunity to ask Gregory if he knew what Yang thought about free college (an important issue for her), and why Gregory felt so strongly about his platform. They ended up having a long conversation about Yang’s policies –– Gregory even declined the extra passenger he got assigned (it was supposed to be a shared Lyft) so they could talk more personally.
“I’m just trying to spread the good word,” she said Gregory told her, urging her to look up his speeches when she got home. He even offered to play one for her along the ride.
While Lin didn’t ultimately vote for Yang (she ended up voting for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the California primary), the experience definitely put him on her radar as a legitimate candidate.
“I’d never even considered [Yang] as a viable option,” Lin said. “But now that I knew what he stood for, I could’ve seen myself supporting him.”
Though not officially linked to Yang, Gregory’s use of individual conversations as a form of grassroots campaigning is far from uncommon, especially in presidential primaries.
In fact, a 1997 study about campaign tactics and voter turnout conducted by Columbia University political science professor Donald Green suggests that the more personal a campaign strategy is, the more effective it ends up being. One-to-one conversations between canvassers and potential voters, for example, increase voter turnout significantly more than automated text messages.
And what greater opportunity is there for personal conversations than rideshares?
Trapped with a stranger for a set amount of time, Uber and Lyft rides present an opportunity for low-stakes, almost anonymous conversations about life and politics.
“We’re kind of like bartenders,” said Antoine, a middle-aged Lyft driver from Long Beach who declined to give his last name. “You have two people who are complete strangers, talking to each other about some really personal stuff. I guess the feeling is like you may never see that person again.”
How these conversations end up going, though, can depend entirely on the driver.
Uber’s 2015 study about driver demographics shows that their drivers are primarily male –– 86%, to be exact. Over a third are white, the other two-thirds split almost evenly between black, Asian, and Hispanic/Latino.
They also skew older –– the largest group is between 30-39 years old, and more drivers are over 50 than are under 30, according to the study. Half of them are married, half have a college degree, and almost half have children.
In other words, these drivers are mostly educated, adult white men, two-thirds of which say they drive Uber in addition to another full-time job to earn extra income to support their families.
How these drivers vote depends largely on their geographical region. But according to a 2006 study on voter turnout by the Pew Research Center, it’s likely these drivers will show up to the booth –– the people most likely to do so on election day tend to be older, white college graduates.
So, it’s not a surprise that many rideshare drivers would be politically active. But how comfortable are they talking about it to their passengers? Conversations with various Uber and Lyft drivers, as well as a few of their riders, revealed a variety of experiences talking politics in the car.
The first thing I noticed when I got into Antoine’s car was the “I voted” sticker proudly displayed on his dashboard.
“People always say, ‘don’t talk about race, religion or politics,’” Antoine said. “But like, generally, the things that people want to talk to [their drivers] about fit into one of those three categories. It’s like no subject is off-limits.”
A middle-aged Latino man from Long Beach, Antoine has been driving Lyft in the L.A. area for a few years now, so it’s impressive that he maintains a perfect 5.0 rating despite his tendency to get into long, heated discussions in his car.
From debating socialism to learning about one of his passenger’s long, messy divorces, Antoine finds it “amazing what people will talk to [their drivers] about.” But for him, political discussions feel almost inevitable, especially in Southern California, where small talk easily veers toward the political.
“If we pass a homeless encampment, I’ll say ‘Oh my god, they should do something for these people,’ and that’ll start the conversation,” he told me, as we were driving past one of the city’s many homeless encampments.
Earlier this year, Antoine drove a spirited female passenger who described herself as a “super-socialist” and talked about “feeling the Bern” –– Antoine called her a “modern-day Robin Hood-type.” They ended up debating Sanders’s platform the entire 45-minute ride.
“She was talking about how we should take all the money from rich people and give it to the poor people, and I was like, ‘no, you can’t do that no matter how badly you want to,’” Antoine recalled, laughing.
By the end of the ride, though neither of them had changed their stances, Antoine realized that Sanders’ platform had a fanbase he never knew of before.
“She convinced me that there’s people who are very serious about socialism,” Antoine said. “Because before I thought like, no way, nobody believes that, not here in the U.S. But there’s a lot of people that do.”
Antoine’s rating is still at a 5.0, meaning no passenger he’s ever disagreed with has rated him lower for that. But not all drivers share that experience.
Steven, a young Latino man and self-proclaimed socialist from Highland Park, had his Uber rating lower slightly after he drove a passenger who supported President Trump.
“[The passenger] told me that we’re all a bunch of leftists babies, that Bernie’s a communist, and that Trump is still gonna win in 2020,” Steven said. “He was just ranting on and on, and eventually I was just nodding my head. He gave me one star.”
Unlike Antoine, Steven’s voice is much softer, and he’s not as quick to spark conversations when he’s driving Uber in Los Angeles. But when he does, he’s just as bold about stating his opinion.
“I say what I think, but I try my best to be very nonchalant and calm about it,” Steven said. “But if they decide to throw a fit about something, then they throw a fit. Religion and politics are a touchy subject.”
Though there’s no “I voted” sticker on his dashboard, Steven recalled driving people to their polling places during this year’s Super Tuesday, where California residents cast their votes in the presidential primary. After voting first thing in the morning, he spent all day talking to passengers about who they were voting for. He drove lots of Sanders supporters, lots of people choosing former Vice President Joe Biden, and even a few backers of Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
A Sanders supporter himself, Steven said he had several passengers call him a communist and tell him he’s wrong for his choice. Still, he tries his best to withhold his own judgment.
“Just because I believe in this thing, and just because you believe in that thing, doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person,” Steven said. “I mean, about that Trump supporter, I don’t know.”
Despite the lower ratings and verbal attacks, Steven does not plan to stop advocating for socialism in his car.
“Your social security card, that’s a form of socialism too,” Steven said. “People just don’t realize what that word means.”
Seiji, a middle-aged Japanese man with a calming voice and a goofy demeanor, has been driving Uber in Honolulu, Hawaii for less than a year. But he’s already run into trouble for tuning into provocative radio stations in his car.
“I’ve had passengers ask me, ‘can you just change this station please?’” Seiji recalled. “I guess (since) it’s Fox News, which is pro-Trump, so he gave me a comment on the app saying I was too political.”
I didn’t even notice that the radio station was set to Fox News when I was riding with Seji until he pointed it out.
Though Seiji supports Trump, he tries not to get too involved in politics. When I asked him if he knew when Hawaii’s primary was, he couldn’t answer. He also said he considered himself neither a Republican nor Democrat.
“I don’t vote. I just don’t want to get involved in it,” Seiji said. “I just think Trump, out of all the presidents that we’ve had, he’s doing it right. But the media is just making him be the bad guy. Like he’s racist, this and that, but I don’t think so.”
In fact, when passengers say they’re against Trump (and most of them are in Honolulu, according to Seiji), he prefers to just lie about his beliefs.
“I just go like, yeah yeah yeah yeah, he’s racist right, hahaha. I don’t want to make a big deal about it,” Seiji said. “I know how I feel, so whatever. I’m not gonna be able to change their mind, so just let it be.”
I asked if he was ever worried a passenger would give him lower ratings for his beliefs. He said no, it’s never happened, at least to his knowledge.
I gave him five stars.
Seiji is not the first driver to delve into conspiracies with his passengers.
USC student Oliver Scott was heading to LAX in February when his Uber driver started talking about how coronavirus was made by the Chinese government as an economic incentive.
“I was just in the car with him, and he wasn’t playing music so it was kind of awkward, kind of hard to start a conversation,” Scott said. “So I said ‘coronavirus’ and he just launched into it.”
The driver, a 50-year-old white man originally from the East Coast, tried to ease him into the conspiracy with specific examples, pointing out that China “tried to cover it up” and that nobody questioned that the “airplane that originally brought it into the U.S. landed in a specific town.”
“You know what that town was called?” the driver asked him. “Corona.”
The World Health Organization confirmed earlier this month that coronavirus came from animals, not a lab. And there are no commercial airports in the town of Corona, California, nor the village of Corona, New Mexico.
Scott was appalled at how adamant his driver was about this theory.
“I was pretty flabbergasted that this guy existed,” Scott said. “I appreciate the skepticism, but I started asking questions about how much he knew about pandemics, and it was clear he didn’t know much.”
Scott added that it could be problematic how open people are to engaging in these types of conversations, as well.
“This guy is just telling people things that are completely fake, and people might believe him,” Scott said. “It was obvious he’d practiced warping the narrative to make things sound realistic, too. But you’re a hostage. You grab someone in a car, and they have to be there now.”
Even after that incident, getting into conversations with drivers feels like an obligation to Scott –– he likes talking and asking questions, so it isn’t hard for him. They’ll usually start with basic small talk: “How long have you been driving today?” But they always end up getting political.
“It always happens,” Scott said. “Someone will say anything, anything at all, and as soon as someone mentions the primaries, it’s over.”
Scott is careful not to reveal too much about himself before he knows what his driver believes. But instead of lying about his opinions, he tries to ask more questions.
“We’re both super vague about actual preferences, because if we disagree, it’s gonna ruin the conversation immediately,” Scott said. “Everyone believes they’re open-minded and that they can be open to people in other parties, but that’s easier said than done. Especially in an Uber.”
Mackenzie Starr, another USC student, was shocked to learn there are Republicans in California when she and her friend took an Uber in Downtown Los Angeles after the 2012 presidential election.
“The conversation started with shea butter and lotion, and how beautiful women were and stuff. It seemed really normal,” Starr said about her driver, a middle-aged black woman from L.A.
But when former President Barack Obama came up, and Starr and her friend expressed their love for him, Starr remembers the driver calling the outgoing president a liar, describing to them how Obama only started supporting homosexuality after he got elected.
“He lied to all of us,” Starr recounted the driver saying. The driver also called Obama “the anti-Christ.”
Being 13 years old, Starr and her friend didn’t know what to say. They just nodded their heads and listened respectfully.
“I didn’t feel the strong urge to tell her she was really twisted. We were just keeping it light-hearted,” Starr said. “But when we got out we were crying with laughter. We started the conversation with lotion!”
Starr’s biggest takeaway was learning that there were people in L.A. who disagreed with her –– “I thought everyone loved Obama!”
Even with all this potential for riveting, sometimes substantial, but sometimes dangerous political conversations, some still swear by silence.
“Why would you be talking politics in an Uber?” said Alison Thomas, a 22-year-old student at George Washington University.
“The people who do that are the Reddit types,” Thomas said. “I’m just trying to get to my destination in peace.”