Liegey Muller Pons: the French startup that is helping politicians in Europe go knocking on the right door
Liegey Muller Pons, a French startup named after its three founders, is using data science to help politicians and political parties improve their electoral strategy. Inspired by the United States, the approach is unfamiliar to the general public in a country like France, despite being used by almost all the candidates in the 2017 French presidential elections. We take a closer look at this project that is playing a pioneer role in Europe, supported by , the support programme for startups created by OVH.
On the use of door-to-door campaigning in the era of social media
During the summer of 2016, while revising the rules on speaking times prior to the French presidential race, the CSA (the French broadcasting authority) made “digital presence” a criterion in assessing a candidate’s political clout. (1) This looked like official recognition of the growing influence of the internet on French politics.
Nevertheless, the election campaign was marked by the comeback of a method that is not at all groundbreaking: door-to-door campaigning. An out-of-date technique? Not really, because data and algorithms can now boost the power of this campaigning tool.
Doing countless rallies in sports halls up and down the country is something of a tradition during French electoral campaigns. A tradition that has a limited effect when it comes to expanding a voter base. The media likes to cover and sometimes dramatise the stakes of these public rallies, but candidates are essentially preaching to the choir, as Liegey Muller Pons explains. With the exception of Emmanuel Macron’s rallies, which attracted an unusual number of curious and undecided voters, these events are primarily a show of strength from presidential candidates. And a moment for their campaigners to come together.
Televised debates helped certain candidates gain visibility in the final stretch of the presidential race, but it seems that door-to-door campaigning was in fact the most decisive weapon in the battle. This at least is the view defended by Liegey Muller Pons, and it has a strong argument: the startup was involved in Emmanuel Macron’s campaign, the candidate who came out on top in the election. There is also the book, published by Calmann-Lévy in 2013, ‘Porte à porte, reconquérir la démocratie sur le terrain ’ (Door-to-door, Winning Back Democracy on the Ground). In this book, the three partners describe the experiments conducted by American researchers, Ian Gerber and Donald Green, which found door-to-door campaigning to be the number one technique for increasing voter turnout, far ahead of mail or phone calls.
The voter next door: data scientists and algorithms tracking down untapped votes
“Door-to-door campaigning is the most effective technique when it comes to convincing an undecided voter, getting an abstainer to vote or even changing someone’s mind on a particular subject.” The secret, in a country with over 67 million people (and nearly 47 million registered voters), is to know which door to knock on to meet voters who are statistically more likely to represent an untapped vote for you. This is where (big) data, or rather data analysis carried out by the data scientists at Liegey Muller Pons, comes in.
“In practice, we work from two open-data sources. On the one hand, the results of all types of elections since 1981 from polling stations in 67,000 French communes, made available by the Ministry of the Interior. On the other hand, socio-demographic data collected by INSEE (the French national institute for statistics and economic research) on age, income and education levels, local unemployment rate, and so on. Collected on different geographical scales, we have to turn this information into coherent data to make it usable.” Once that is done they can map France neighbourhood by neighbourhood, using predictive models that isolate the election’s specific variables to indicate the level of belief in a candidate’s ideas and the level of abstention in each region. Campaign teams can then chose one of two strategies: either primarily focusing their efforts on high-abstention areas and/or persuading undecided voters, by seeing where they have the biggest scope for progress. The software also gives a typical profile of voters to be convinced (age, profession and income, for example) and provides information on what will influence their vote. All that’s left is for volunteer campaigners to go knocking on doors to share their beliefs and experiences.
Mobilising campaigners via a web platform
Liegey Muller Pons has coupled this first application, called “Fifty + One”, which makes it possible to “understand local issues and analyse local public opinion”, with a CRM-type tool that allows campaigns to take advantage of digital technologies to facilitate the organisation of campaigners on the ground, but also online. “In addition to collecting and qualifying contacts (people who, for example, will be invited to the rallies and training sessions organised by the candidate), the web platform helps mobilise campaigners more easily. For instance, by preparing itineraries for the volunteers on the ground, to guide their door-to-door activity via a mobile application.” Overall, it is all about improving efficiency and better including the supporters of a campaign, with the goal of transforming passive supporters into active campaigners. An extremely effective principle that the three founders discovered when they were students at Harvard University in the US. “In 2008, two days after volunteering by entering an email address on Barack Obama’s campaign website, they were recruited for door-to-door campaigning, without the intervention of any other intermediary than the web platform.” This is when the three men first thought of importing these methods to France.
The results now speak for themselves, if judged on the outcome of the elections that Liegey Muller Pons has taken part in, from François Hollande being elected in 2012 (when they were volunteers) to the election of Emmanuel Macron in 2017. But there is an even clearer victory for the proponents of electoral data science in France. All the main candidates in the 2017 French presidential election used this type of software (2), whether it was the one developed by Liegey Muller Pons (praised by Macron’s party during the presidential campaign and used by over 300 Socialist party candidates, as well as a few Republican and France Insoumise candidates during the parliamentary elections), or the one developed by its American competitor, Nation Builder (used by François Fillon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon). At a time when there is much talk of “changing the French political software”, as an old managerial phrase put it, it is funny to see such consensus on the use of these electoral strategy applications. It should be noted that although Liegey Muller Pons offers its services to all political sensibilities, it refuses to work with populist parties.
Should we be worried about the power its tools give candidates? “It’s not magic: success depends on three ingredients: data, technique and a human aspect. What made the difference for Emmanuel Macron was the number of volunteers that he managed to get on board.” Indeed, the solution only democratises and professionalises the work of strategists and other electoral mapping experts that have always worked with candidates. Or at least the ones who could afford them. The Cloud is no stranger to this sort of democratisation: “There is more and more data available, computing power is increasing and the costs of processing and storage are going down. Just a few years ago, we would have had to invest a great deal of money in servers. Today, we rent servers in the OVH Public Cloud, just for the time it takes to carry out the calculations we need.”
Sights set on Europe and business
Requests from politicians are flocking in from all over Europe and Liegey Muller Pons has already worked on campaigns in Germany, Italy and Spain. But politicians are not the only ones to be interested in the company’s expertise: Liegey Muller Pons recently formed a partnership with the newspaper Le Figaro, so that political journalists can use this science too. Taking inspiration from the methods used by politicians, among Liegey Muller Pons’ customers are the CFDT (a French national trade union centre), for a membership campaign, as well as companies like Engie (a French energy utility group), which wanted to involve local residents in industrial projects like the construction of a wind farm.
Winning elections is a clear measure of credibility for the Liegey Muller Pons solution. Now to convince politicians to use the digital tools at their disposal in a sustainable way to stay in touch with the public. Not just during campaigns. Civic technology brings hope, but takes time to fulfil its promise. With an ambition to reconnect politicians with their fellow citizens to revitalise democracy and fight against populism, Liegey Muller Pons is counting on turning this around.
(1) French press: « Temps de parole : le CSA modifie les règles avant la présidentielle« , by Alexis Delcambre, 30 June 2016 on lemonde.fr
(2) French press: « Comment le Big Data s’est invité dans la campagne présidentielle« , by Nicolas Richaud, 19 April 2017 on lesechos.fr
You can also read the interview (in French) with Guillaume Liegey by Vincent Georis on l’Echo.be: « Le meilleur conseil en politique, c’est le Big Data »