By Diana King

HBS professor Vincent Pons teaching
CID Faculty Affiliate Vincent Pons, associate professor at Harvard Business School, teaching to a classroom of students.

A native of Strasbourg, political economist, associate professor at Harvard Business School, and CID Faculty Affiliate Vincent Pons had just turned 18, old enough to vote in his first election, when France was rocked by the biggest political shock since the protests of May 1968 ground the economy to a halt. Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the far-right Front National party, had advanced to the second round of the 2002 presidential election, securing the largest lead for the far right in decades. Xenophobic, extremist, and a denier of the Holocaust, Le Pen was the antithesis of French republican ideals.

“My friends and I joked that if Le Pen became President, we would erect barricades and join the Resistance,” Pons recalls. Echoing the spirit of May ‘68, when millions of French students and workers took to the streets, Pons and his friends joined over a million demonstrators to protest Le Pen’s rise to power. 

The mobilization aided incumbent Jacques Chirac’s landslide victory, and delayed the mainstreaming of populism by 15 years. (Le Pen’s daughter and successor, Marine Le Pen, was elected to the second round of French presidential elections in 2017 and 2022.)

Protest before the second round of French presidential elections between the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and outgoing president Jacques Chirac (Paris - 28/04/2002)
Protest before the second round of French presidential elections between the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and outgoing president Jacques Chirac. Paris, April 28, 2002. Photo Credit: Florent Hay via Flickr

For Pons, the 2002 election marked the moment electoral democracy became “an ideal worth studying and fighting for.” He strives in his work to better understand the foundations of democracy in order to impact policy. If, to cite Adam Przeworski, a democracy is fundamentally “a system where parties lose elections,” how do we ensure that elections fulfill their democratic promise – that they are as fair, free, and representative as possible? How can we measure if democratic power transitions lead to policies that actually improve lives? 

To answer these questions, Pons began studying political philosophy, then switched to economics in part due to a transformative experience in Morocco as a research assistant for Esther Duflo, who received the 2019 Nobel Prize in economics with Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer for popularizing randomized controlled trials – a method that enables social scientists to test policy outcomes with the rigor of the natural sciences. 

A second historic election inspired Pons to merge his training in field methodology with his fascination for electoral processes. Newly arrived in the U.S. to pursue a PhD in economics at MIT, Pons watched the 2008 Obama campaign with a mix of wonder and scientific curiosity.

“The systematic use of data, the level of organization, the individual-level targeting, the fact that [Obama] was mobilizing voters based on evidence rather than political instinct” were things he had never seen. Curious to test if a similar strategy would work in France, which was experiencing declining voter participation, especially among low-income citizens, Pons and two friends from Strasbourg who were studying at Harvard Kennedy School, Guillaume Liegey and Arthur Muller, conducted an experiment using door-to-door tactics during a regional campaign in the Paris suburbs in 2010. The success of that experiment (voter turnout increased, notably among immigrants, who often lacked information on how to vote) led to their appointment as the national field directors of François Hollande’s 2012 presidential campaign. 

Les Bostoniens, as they were called by the French press, organized 80,000 canvassers to knock on 5 million doors – a tremendous feat that helped Hollande win the election, changed the French campaign landscape, and provided a countrywide dataset for a landmark study: Pons was the first to measure the impact of door-to-door canvassing on voter choice. Canvassing accounted for a quarter of Hollande’s victory margin, suggesting that short conversations can change voter minds.

Over the last 15 years, Pons has been building a fresh portrait of democracy by examining four key elements of elections: the factors influencing voter turnout, the factors shaping voter preferences, the representativeness of election results, and the impact of election outcomes on policies and economic performance. 

His research has led to voter registration reform in France, and via country-specific case studies and analysis of global data, has implications for policy worldwide, including in developing countries where electoral institutions may be fragile or newly established. He has examined, for example, how to increase trust in electoral institutions in Kenya. In a large-scale experiment implemented with Kenya’s Electoral Commission, Pons shows that text messages intended to mobilize voters before the 2013 general elections increased turnout but decreased trust in electoral institutions when administrators failed to deliver on promises of a transparent and orderly process. 

A voter checks for her name on the voter's list. Nigeria
A voter checks for her name on the voter's list, 2019 Nigerian general elections. Photo Credit: Nnaemeka Ugochukwu via Unsplash

He has also studied how globalization shapes elections and domestic policies in Bolivia, Zambia, and Spain; the impact of moving to a different state on voter behavior in the U.S.; and in the most comprehensive study of its kind, he draws upon global presidential and parliamentary data from 1945, to show that electoral turnovers are good for the economy, especially in non-OECD countries.

“There’s existing work that associates [other aspects of] democracy with good economic performance,” notes Pons. But during electoral turnovers, it could theoretically go either way, bringing instability or improved policy. Pons is the first to empirically demonstrate that turnovers bring economic benefits such as “less inflation, less unemployment, and more trade,” as well as “better governance and less corruption,” partly due to the incoming party’s concern for establishing a good reputation. Results were slightly larger in developing countries, notes Pons, perhaps because they tend to have “fewer [executive] checks and balances, and thus, more scope for the election outcome to produce impact.”   

On the flipside, when “democracy does not function well, you can see the negative effects – low voter turnout, high abstention that then decreases the legitimacy of the winner and makes it harder for them to effect policy, and creates political risk for companies,” says Pons, who is troubled by today’s high levels of polarization and distrust in political leaders and institutions that has fueled (and in turn is intensified by) the rise of populism.

In the U.S., in particular, he is concerned that “the candidate who lost the last election never recognized his defeat,” and in recent years, candidates have refused to debate, preferring political meetings restricted to members of their party.

“This is concerning because democracy should not just be about counting the strengths of different sides, but also deliberation…[about] people occasionally talking to someone of a different opinion and then changing their mind,” he says.

Companies, Pons believes, have a role to play in upholding democracy from encouraging employees to vote and giving them paid time off on Election Day, to modeling and even offering training on how to respectfully disagree, and understand the origins of their own and others’ perspectives. This is critical, he says, because while friends, families, and neighbors increasingly seem to espouse the same views, “the workplace is one of the few places where we still have discussions with people we respect, but who might have different opinions.”

CID’s faculty affiliates embody the breadth and depth of international development research at Harvard. Over 125 affiliates hail from across Harvard and work in every region of the world, on every topic in development.
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