Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times
SAN FRANCISCO â Over the last few years, so-called sharing companies like Airbnb and Uber â online platforms that allow strangers to pay one another for a room or a ride â have established footholds in thousands of communities well before local regulators have figured out how to deal with them.
Now, as cities grapple with the growth of these services and try to pass rules for how they should operate, the companies are fighting back by turning their users into a vast political operation that can be mobilized at any sign of a threat.
Airbnb offered the latest and most vociferous example of this on Wednesday. Fresh off defeating a San Francisco measure that would have severely curtailed the companyâs business in its hometown, Airbnb staged a news conference that functioned as a warning shot to other cities thinking about proposing new regulations.
The event was billed as a debriefing to discuss the defeat of Proposition F, which would have toughened existing rules for the service by, among other things, cutting the number of nights people could rent out rooms in their homes.
Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times
But the briefing was less about the actual election than an attempt to turn the results into a mandate for the sharing economy.
Chris Lehane, a Washington political operative who now serves as Airbnbâs head of global policy and public affairs, framed Proposition F as a hotel-industry-led attack on the middle class.
In this city of about 840,000 people, roughly $ 8 million was raised by groups opposed to Proposition F â about eight times the amount raised by the propositionâs backers, according to records filed with the San Francisco Ethics Commission.
Much of that money was spent mobilizing Airbnb hosts and users, Mr. Lehane said. Still, he repeatedly homed in on one of the companyâs most important talking points: Airbnbâs victory was a win for the middle class.
âCities recognize where the world is going, right, they understand that youâre either going to go forward or youâre going to go backward,â he said. âThey understand that in a time of economic inequality, this is a question of whose side are you on: Do you want to be on the side of the middle class, or do you want to be opposed to the middle class?â
Airbnb is preparing for more fights. Mr. Lehane said the company was working to organize voting blocs in other cities where it operates. By the end of next year, he said, the company has a goal of creating 100 âclubsâ made up of Airbnb home-sharers â sort of like local unions.
Companies like Airbnb and Uber have become multibillion-dollar companies by employing a kind of guerrilla growth strategy in which they set up a modest team of workers in a city and immediately start providing their services to the public, whether local laws allow them to or not.
Uber, the ride-hailing behemoth now valued at more than $ 50 billion, operates in more than 300 cities around the world. Airbnb is available in 34,000 cities, and more than 60 million people have used the service. Investors value the company at $ 24 billion â higher than the hotel giant Marriott Internationalâs valuation.
Those billions are predicated on lots of future growth. So both companies have hired seasoned political operatives to woo legislators and beat back regulatory threats.
Mr. Lehane, a former political operative in the Clinton administration, was nicknamed the Master of Disaster for his no-holds-barred approach to winning political fights. David Plouffe, a former adviser to President Obama, is now a senior adviser to Uber and a member of its board.
Mr. Lehane and Mr. Plouffe have both tried to frame their companies as middle-class saviors in a moment of economic anxiety and income inequality â themes that are playing out in the presidential election as well. Jeb Bush and other Republicans have bragged about their Uber rides on the campaign trail, praising these companies as the future of self-sufficient employment.
Democrats have taken a more cautious approach. Hillary Rodham Clinton has repeatedly questioned what such employment means for workersâ rights. Liberal economists who advise Mrs. Clinton have criticized such part-time labor as yet another means to chip away at workersâ benefits.
But such companies have a potent tool in the form of their platforms and smartphone apps, and they have shown little hesitation in using it to encourage their users to protest or vote.
In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio backed a proposal this year that would cap the number of Uber drivers on the road in Manhattan. Uber fought back by tweaking its smartphone app with a special âde Blasioâ feature to show users in New York how hard it would be to get an Uber ride under those caps.
âThis is what Uber will look like in NYC if Mayor de Blasioâs Uber cap bill passes,â the app said.
In the news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Lehane used a slide show to portray people who rent their property on Airbnb as a potent voting bloc that, like the members of a labor union, will reliably show up to vote, even in low-turnout elections like Tuesdayâs.
âThere is going to be more people doing home-sharing tomorrow than there are today, there is going to be more the day after that,â he said. âThis is now a movement.â
Movement or not, some have already tried to curb these companiesâ growing political power. One of the other measures in Tuesdayâs election was Proposition C, a complicated proposal that would, among other things, make companies like Airbnb disclose any money they use to encourage hosts to show up at city meetings.
And it is unlikely the Airbnb debate in San Francisco has ended with the election.
On Tuesday, San Franciscans also elected Aaron Peskin, a longtime San Francisco progressive, to its Board of Supervisors. In an interview, Mr. Peskin promised the Airbnb issue would not go away.
âI think Airbnb would be well served to negotiate a workable, enforceable compromiseâ to curb âthe most egregious excesses that result in the loss of permanent, affordable rental housing stock,â he said. âOr this is likely to be a perennial issue at the ballot.â