German Campaigning -- American-Style | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 17.09.2005
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German Campaigning -- American-Style

Campaign theme songs, bus tours through the country, campaign call centers -- if these things sound familiar, it's because they are. Welcome to Germany's American-influenced election campaigns.

A debate turned the tide

A debate turned the tide

American involvement just might be the reason Chancellor Gerhard Schröder even has a sliver of a chance in Sunday's election.

His Social Democrats were tailing Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union by as many as 15 points in the months after he called for new elections last May. Then Schröder and Merkel squared off in a TV debate, imported from across the Atlantic for the first time in 2002, and the incumbent came away the clear winner. The SPD soon climbed from just under 30 percent of the vote to 35 percent in a matter of days.

The television debate, an American campaign mainstay since Kennedy and Nixon squared off in 1960, has arrived in Germany and been quickly mastered by Schröder. But it's by no means the only change in German campaigning.

American, and more professional

Cross-country bus tours, rousing party congresses, highly professionalized campaign headquarters: in shaping their candidates and message, the country's major parties are increasingly borrowing methods fashioned and perfected in the United States, say former media advisors and analysts.

Frische Ideen, Parteitag der Grünen

Joschka Fischer, center, the main event at the Green party convention

"The Americanization of German campaigning is, above all, a professionalization of the campaigns," said Michael Spreng.

In 2002, Spreng managed the conservative candidate Edmund Stoiber's failed campaign bid to unseat Gerhard Schröder as chancellor. The election marked the first time in Germany candidates held televised debates with one another. Spreng (photo) sent an assistant to the US to research debate rules and watch videotapes of past debates.

Michael Spreng, der neue Wahlkampfmanager von Stoiber

Michael Spreng said his team watched videotapes of past US presidential debates

The 2005 campaign has seen even more borrowed elements from the US. Merkel's campaign team has set up a professional call center to handle queries from voters, and a so-called "rapid response" team that contradicts inaccuracies made by Schröder in speeches or attacks on his opponent, says a CDU campaign official.

Going crazy for "Angie"

The conservatives' party convention, held on August 21, featured a one and a half hour performance by singers from the musical "Queen" and the arrival of Merkel to raucous cheers and a sea of orange placards bearing the name "Angie," a very un-German nickname given the candidate by her campaign and likely designed to broaden her appeal.

"It was completely new in the party's history," says the official. "Almost the entire party convention was designed with show and television in mind … it was pretty modern for a conservative, white-bread party like ours."

Ungedeckter Wechsel

“Almost the entire party congress was designed with show and television in mind"

Like the party's use of the Rolling Stones song "Angie" at campaign stump speeches, the convention was designed to lend a little flash to a candidate who voters think of as capable, but uninspiring, says the official. "We wanted to stir up some emotions," he says.

SPD gets personal

The SPD offered a toned-down version of their party convention last week in order to serve as a contrast to the conservatives. Campaign manager Kajo Wasserhoevel said the party would use grassroots methods like canvassing -- that the SPD first learned by watching John F. Kennedy's campaign in 1960 -- in the final weeks. But the party would continue to personalize the campaign, building on Schröder's high popularity ratings in an effort to sway voters over to his party.

"We want to show his strengths, his courage in reforming the country and his work for peace," said Wasserhoevel.

Wahlkampfauftakt in Hannover: Schröder

The SPD has built its campaign around the chancellor's personality

Some critics say this type of personalization is strange in a political system where the party, not the individual, is the focal point, and they worry about a campaign future based on style, not substance. But campaign veterans like Radunski say it's the natural development in the age of television, and with a candidate as telegenic and accomplished in front of the camera as Schröder.

"You could call it Americanization, but you could also call it a modernization," says Radunski. "If there's television, then you should use it."

Germans more skeptical than American voters

There are some things German strategists will never be able to copy. Broadcast rules restrict campaign ads to being shown only on selected channels in the evening time, sparing voters from an avalanche of campaign spots.

German campaigns will also never be able to match the money shelled out by Democrats and Republicans. Germans typically don't contribute to campaigns, and the 25 million euros ($31 million) the SPD is planning to spend and the 23 million the CDU will spend, pale in comparison to the figures spent on the other side of the Atlantic. Even if they had such cash, Spreng says a complete adoption of American campaign tactics would be a waste of money.

Bush gewinnt Jubel bei den Republikanern

Germans understand it's part of a show

"It's never going to be as showy as in America," says Spreng. "The voters understand it's part of a show ... but they know not to mix more politics and show business. The Germans are more fact-based and skeptical."

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