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Germany

Opinion: Fake feelings boost SPD's approval ratings

The "faster, higher, stronger" motto suddenly applies to the Social Democrats, who have been dogged by a loser image for some time. But the SPD's sudden surge could be based on fake feelings, says DW's Marcel Fürstenau.

The April 2016 "SPD below 20 percent" headline feels like it was ages ago. Now, opinion poll institutes seem to be outdoing each other's Social Democratic Party ratings on a daily basis. On February 2, the Berlin-based opinion poll institute Infratest Dimap put the center-left SPD's support at 28 percent; on February 6, the internationally-networked Kantar Emnid and the Erfurt-based Insa Institute put them at 29 percent. If this goes on, chancellor candidate Martin Schulz will win this fall's national election with a majority SPD government.

Some party members may dare to dream this sweet dream when they see the latest surge in popularity. But when they wake up, it will be obvious that this is only an illusion. Nonetheless, Social Democratic hearts are beating faster because opinion pollsters are portraying the present situation through rose-colored glasses, thus entertaining high hopes for the future. Is it possible for an ugly duckling to turn into a swan so quickly? Is the electorate really so fickle and impressionable?

A popular game that entails the unknown

Klaus-Peter Schöppner, a longtime director of Infratest, was among the first skeptics to speak out in remarks to the "Berliner Zeitung" daily. "I don't really believe it," he said of the SPD survey results compiled by the Insa Institute and commissioned "Bild" newspaper, which put the party at 31 percent. That means Germany's junior ruling coalition partners are ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and their Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) sister party, who sit at 30 percent. "You can't achieve such a rapid change of opinion by doing nothing," said Schöppner.

Kommentarfoto Marcel Fürstenau Hauptstadtstudio (DW/S. Eichberg)

DW's Marcel Fürstenau

If this is true, then one must question the reliability of the entire polling industry. Schöppner has had an opinion survey company of his own, Mentefactum, since 2014. The surveys are theoretically based on scientific methods; otherwise they lose the "representative" quality label. With so many different pollsters vying for customers, no one in the industry can afford to be deprived of official recognition.

Pollsters flourish in election year

Yet one cannot say that there is a lack of demand - on the contrary. The survey business is always booming when state or federal elections are held. Of course, mainstream media are heavily involved - they are the ones who hire the pollsters. This conclusion is all the more obvious now that Martin Schulz has been named as Merkel's challenger. The SPD's surging numbers have fueled suspense. However, falling numbers can also make for attention-grabbing headlines.

More surveys at faster rates obviously influence people's opinions, especially if the situation promises excitement. This is definitely the case with the dramatic Schulz showing. The mathematical parliamentary majority for the SPD, Green Party and Left Party that looked absolutely hopeless back in December now looks possible. Trends like this could result from asking interviewees about feelings. However, fake feelings are still better than fake news.

'Polls are polls'

Schulz, the figure responsible for the recent SPD boom, feels uneasy about all the hype surrounding him. He has levelheadedly stressed that "polls are polls." At the same time, he underlined the fact that he wants to show emotion in his election campaign. The SPD must prove that it is not only made up of thinkers. In the coming weeks and months, the polls will show whether the party has been able to successfully implement its strategy.

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