Germany’s conservative Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was re-elected, as voters gave her party an overwhelming victory in seats in parliament. Political campaigns in Germany, though, are rather different from the way they are in the United States.
On the most technical level is the fact that the campaign, by U.S. standards, was fleetingly short and bargain-basement cheap. No surprise there, except the magnitude of the financial gulf. Merkel spent about $27 million, mostly in public funds, during the six-week campaign — and that was for the entire slate of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU). By contrast, the Obama reelection campaign alone spent $700 million — not including extra cash from the party or outside groups.
More surprising, as emerged in the course of a visit organized by the German Marshall Fund, was the relative absence of the modern arsenal of high-tech campaign weaponry. It has become common for other countries to import the techniques and even the operatives of U.S. political campaigns, but the German way is creakily old-fashioned.
The notion of data-driven micro-targeting is offensive to Germans, for whom the idea that a political party would purchase information about voters’ preferences and behaviors evokes an unwelcome history of overbearing government. Even the most rudimentary of information — voters’ party preferences and records of participation — is unavailable here. . . .
Likewise, another staple of modern American politics — negative advertising — was absent, for the simple reason that it would be certain to backfire.
“We don’t attack each other,” Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament from the Left Party said as he campaigned in a gentrifying district of East Berlin. “Germans wouldn’t like it.”
Indeed, braced for an avalanche of pre-election television advertising, I channel-surfed in vain for a single German campaign commercial, only to be informed that each party is given a set amount of time, based on voter share, on the two public networks. Ads from the two main parties — Merkel’s CDU and the Social Democrats — ran eight times on each channel; smaller parties were consigned to four.
The parties can purchase time on private networks as well, but the relative paucity of funds limits such airings.As Emily Schultheis of Politico observed, the Merkel ad was slated to run 140 times, while the Obama campaign ran more than 100,000 ads in Ohio alone.
The Merkel ad, by the way, offered a fascinating glimpse of cross-cultural gender politics. With 90 seconds of the chancellor speaking directly to the camera, it featured close-ups of jowls and wrinkles that no female politician in the United States — indeed, that no female politician’s opponent in the United States — would dare risk.
And for U.S. visitors inured to tight security, campaign events here were disconcertingly open; even at Merkel’s final rally, supporters did not have to pass through the metal detectors ubiquitous at American campaign events.
But perhaps most astonishing for those immersed in the polarized American political landscape is the edges-rounded-off nature of the German political debate. U.S. voters may say they want their politicians to cooperate and compromise, but a system built on party primaries and gerrymandered districts pushes relentlessly toward division.
In theory, a multiparty arrangement accommodates and reflects a wider range of political views. In Merkel’s Germany, it has resulted in a race to the middle — not just in forming a coalition government but in the campaign itself.