While Vincent Pons PhD ’14 was pursuing his doctorate at MIT, he was invited to serve in François Hollande’s 2012 campaign for president of France. Pons, a native of France, jumped at the opportunity with encouragement from his MIT advisors, professors Esther Duflo, PhD ’99, and Benjamin Olken, directors at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab.
As national director of Hollande’s field operation, Pons oversaw the largest canvassing effort in Europe’s political history.
“There’s something quite powerful about a personal discussion,” he says. “A three- to five-minute conversation can bridge the gap with voters and produce surprisingly large impacts.”
Pons became interested in voter mobilization during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. He was impressed by the campaign groundwork, which connected Obama volunteers with potential voters through face-to-face interactions—a seldom-used tactic in France.
“In France, people who get involved in politics focus on the arguments and issues at stake,” Pons says. “Campaigning is seen as less noble and potentially intrusive.”
And the results are definitive. After Hollande defeated incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, Pons’s postelection data showed that the American method persuaded a large fraction of voters and accounted for one-fifth of Hollande’s victory margin in the second round. In another project, focusing on voter registration, his team found that 93 percent of the people who were registered thanks to the campaign actually voted in subsequent elections.
“People often lament that political turnout is low, but there are powerful tools at our disposal to increase it,” Pons says. “We found that small obstacles can prevent people from voting. With our help, these citizens not only voted but became more interested and better informed.”
Pons is now an assistant professor in Harvard Business School’s Business, Government, and the International Economy unit, and in 2013 he cofounded the consulting company Liegey Muller Pons, the first campaign technology startup in Europe.
“I’m becoming more interested in the mobilization of citizens in other realms, such as U.S. labor unions,” he says. “Unions can have a major impact on the economy, so we need to better understand what makes them strong or weak.”
Pons has kept a close watch on the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, which he says is proof that very different views can have a voice in the political election process.
“I find this campaign quite puzzling and, to some extent, alarming,” he says. “But just like in the 2008 election, the emergence of unlikely candidates is a testimony of the strength of open primaries, as opposed to the designation of candidates by party hierarchy.”
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.