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Opinion polls upend CDU, SPD party campaigns

September 6, 2021

Poll after poll show the SPD rising, and the CDU lagging in voter support. Increasingly desperate conservatives are warning against a socialist takeover. But the center-left SPD are not counting their chickens just yet.

Armin Laschet throwing his hands in the air
CDU candidate Armin Laschet has his back to the wallImage: Annegret Hilse/REUTERS

With three weeks to go to Germany's election, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has resorted to dark insinuations that high-flying Social Democrat contender Olaf Scholz means to team up with radical socialists who will threaten Germany's very security.

At a campaign rally in southern Germany on Monday, CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet said a Scholz-led coalition with the Greens and the socialist Left party would weaken the military, because the Left party opposes foreign troop deployments and would prevent the army from buying armed drones. 

A coalition between the center-left SPD, the Green party and the Left "cannot take on responsibility, even just in foreign policy," he warned, according to a report by the RND media outlet. "That is a security risk."  

The anti-Left attack was taken up by other leading conservative figures. Markus Söder, leader of the CDU's Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), wheeled out a line that has been used by the center-right since the Left's inception, accusing the Left of failing to distance itself from the communist East German dictatorship. 

In response, SPD co-chairs Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken said the CDU/CSU was running a "campaign of fear" from "the '90s."

"And it's clearly not working," Esken added for good measure.   

CDU secretary Peter Hintze presenting the red sock campaign
The CDU famously campaigned against a communist alliance in 1994 — symbolized by a red sockImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Gerten

CDU in despair

The note of desperation in the CDU is understandable: Laschet's party has been in second place in opinion polls for a week now, and the latest two polls — released last weekend by INSA and YouGov —  saw the SPD with a five-point lead: 25%, against the CDU's 20% and the Greens' 15%-16%. That is a surprising turn, considering pollsters had put the SPD at a mere 15% in May — with the Greens at 26%.

The latest numbers indicate a catastrophic return for Laschet, given that the CDU was well over 20 points ahead of the SPD in mid-2020, when many expected the election campaign to be a procession to the chancellery for the conservatives. 

So far, the CDU's strategy for turning this tide — apart from spooking voters with the specter of the radical left — is to pressure its usual coalition partners. Friedrich Merz, an erstwhile rival whom Laschet has drawn into his core campaign team, has demanded that the pro-free market Free Democratic Party (FDP) rule out a coalition with the SPD and the Greens.  

FDP leader Christian Lindner refused to be drawn on public broadcaster ARD, though he did say that his party's manifesto was closer to that of the CDU than either the SPD and the Greens. "At this point, an attractive offer from Mr. Scholz would be a surprise," Lindner coyly told Der Spiegel news magazine.

Infografik Deutschlandtrend Sonntagsfrage EN

Polling problems 

The SPD, meanwhile, has learned the hard way not to get too excited. Only months before the last election in 2017, their candidate Martin Schulz was riding a wave of good press and goodwill. The former European Parliament president had caught up with Angela Merkel's CDU in the polls, only to slump to a historically bad 20.5% in the actual election. 

That, along with the lessons learned from polling ahead of the 2016 US presidential election, has shaken many pundits' faith in opinion polls. As Thomas Wind, founder of the Institute for Target Group Communication (IfZ), told DW in August, pollsters sometimes struggle to reach certain demographics, and undecided voters are often excluded from the published results. 

"The undecided pose a problem for us because they can make up 20% or more of the people polled," said Wind. 

Not only that, polls generally have margins of error of between two and three points, which in the case of current German polling would mean that the CDU and SPD could easily be neck and neck in reality.  

And what will it mean that postal voting is well underway, with up to 50% of the electorate estimated to be opting for a mail-in ballot, largely because of the COVID pandemic?

Merkel, Laschet visit flood-hit state as election looms

Coalition flirtation 

In a race this tight, in which it looks unlikely that two parties will have enough to form a government alone, coalition speculation has itself become an election issue. Though they prefer to straight-bat such questions until after the election, party leaders are already offering hints about their options.  

The Left party, for one, has indeed shown signs that it might blur some of its red lines in negotiations for the first-ever chance at government: The socialists' leading candidate Dietmar Bartsch told a podcast by the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger last Thursday that if a potential SPD-Green-Left coalition had a majority after the election, he would be "prepared to talk about anything." That would presumably mean compromises on the Left's plans to replace NATO with a security alliance that includes Russia. 

But such a coalition would be unprecedented, and few political observers expect the SPD to swing that way, should they win: More likely, not least given the fact that the FDP is polling at 13%, the SPD will try to shore up a centrist alliance by making a pitch to the pro-business party. But much could still happen in the next three weeks. 

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year's elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight