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The politics of the gig economy

A big theme in this election cycle has been the so-called gig economy. It's fueled by the likes of fresh hotel competitor Airbnb along with ride sharing apps like Lyft and Uber.

Some presidential candidates applaud the companies' innovative ways around stringent regulation, while others question the ways freelancers are changing the nature of the workforce and the economy. Love it or leave it, Uber is a fact of life in most American cities now, and even presidential campaigns are getting in on it.

Every presidential campaign has spent money on the on-demand taxi service, according to a Big Crunch analysis of campaign expenditure data from the Federal Elections Commission.

By hiring contractors who operate outside the traditional of employment, companies like Uber can avoid paying certain taxes to the government. They can also avoid offering worker protections that we normally associate with full-time employment.

But working for a company like this lets people use their time more efficiently and make rational decisions for themselves. The companies also provide a capitalistic incentive to perform basic tasks other consumers are willing to outsource.

Uber, Lyft and Airbnb have faced political controversy, regulatory pushback and a wealth of rich investors looking to make huge profits.

It turns out that all of the presidential candidates have spent money on on-demand services, and all have used Uber.

Of candidates still in the race, Ted Cruz's campaign reported the most spending on the service, a total of $12,400. That's no surprise considering the Texas senator's vocal support for the gig economy. He's even compared his influence on politics to the crowd-source company's effect on the taxi industry.

"What I'm trying to do more than anything else if bring a disruptive app to politics," he said, according to Talking Points Memo. The Cruz campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Former candidate Jeb Bush's campaign racked up more than $23,000 on Uber, the most of any candidate. He famously took an Uber ride in San Francisco last July, just after Democrat Hillary Clinton questioned the gig economy in a speech outlining her economic plan.

"This on demand, or so-called 'gig economy' is creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation," Clinton said in the July speech. "But it's also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future."

Despite the tough talk, Clinton's campaign has spent about $4,000 on Uber, according to the data. The Clinton campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Brother, can you spare a bed?

These are small drops in the barrel of political spending, but they're important indicators of how a campaign is run — and the priorities candidates put on how to spend their millions.

Bernie Sanders hasn't directly addressed these on-demand companies. The Sanders campaign website links to an article from the Atlantic called "Uber Is Not the Future of Work." And many pundits have suggested his support for expanded regulations and worker protections would pit him against the free-wheeling business model.

The Sanders campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

His campaign has made extensive use of Airbnb while on the trail - spending over $35,000 since the campaign began. It's been notoriously difficult before to find housing on the campaign trail. For the 1880 Republican convention in Chicago, thousands of candidates, reporters and delegates overflowed the city's hotels. James Garfield managed to get a room, but reportedly had to share with a total stranger.

Of course, putting your spare room or cabin up on Airbnb to earn a few extra bucks is different than working for a company that's been battling a class-action lawsuit for mis-categorizing employees.

But both companies are trying to make their mark in a clogged ecosystem of rumors and competing interests.

In that way, it's kind of like running for president.