German parties try to learn from US campaign, but fail to excite voters | Election | DW | 07.09.2009
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German parties try to learn from US campaign, but fail to excite voters

Ever since Barack Obama redefined campaigning during the US election, German parties have been eager to adapt his methods. But despite their best efforts, the German election is a far cry from last year's Obamamania.

Campaign poster featuring Angela Merkel and Vera Lengsfeld

A campaign poster showing Chancellor Merkel in a low cut top was an attempt to spice up a dull campaign

When US presidential candidate Barack Obama came to Berlin in late July 2008 for a brief visit, he was greeted like a rock star and an estimated 200,000 people listened to his speech at the victory column in the German capital.

One year later, in the midst of a historic recession and just weeks away from the country's federal election in September, the German candidates for chancellor can only dream of a reception like the one the senator from Illinois got. Instead, the election campaign between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her opponent Frank-Walter Steinmeier has so far been a rather lackluster affair. According to a new poll by Forsa, roughly half of eligible German voters don't even know the date of the upcoming election.

German campaign experts Christoph Bieber and Marco Althaus both describe this year's campaign as dull and boring - despite the high stakes the national poll is considered to have amid a global economic crisis, rising unemployment, and a slew of environmental and foreign policy challenges.

There are several reasons why the campaign until now has been ignored by many voters and won't really heat up, say the experts, but a lack of trying to adapt lessons learned from Obama's successful election campaign isn't one of them. "When you look at techniques and technologies, I think the German parties have been pretty receptive to what happened in the US," says Marco Althaus, a visiting professor at the University of Applied Sciences Wildau.

Internet activites of parties

German parties have greatly expanded their internet campaigning

Althaus points out that as a reaction to Obama's successful election strategy all the major parties have clearly expanded their internet campaigning and grassroots organising abilities. Campaign blogs, online donations and social communities have become a staple of the internet efforts of Germany's main political parties.

Christoph Bieber, a political scientist at the Center for Media and Interactivity at Justus Liebig University Giessen, says that German parties really have tried hard to learn from last year's US campaign. He says that every major German party has sent campaign observers to the US, with some of them even working as campaign aides for the Democratic or Republican campaigns. So the fact, that unlike previous elections or country's like Britain, no major German party has hired a paid US election consultant, doesn't explain the absence of a real campaign.

Less time, less money

One huge difference between the US and the German campaign is the amount of time the candidates have to get their message out. Coming off the grueling primary battle against Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama had more than a year to shape and constantly adapt his campain strategy and style. German candidates don't have that kind of time. "In Germany, we have a very much shorter campaign," explains Bieber. "It comes down to about four to six weeks in the late summer this year."

What's more, German candidates have to run their campaigns with a fraction of the funds their US counterparts have. "It's often overlooked that political parties and candidates in Germany can't spend that much money to maintain their websites and their social media campaigns," adds Bieber. The difference is indeed staggering. During the primary in March 2008, Barack Obama raised 41 million dollars. That means that Obama raked in roughly the same amount in one month as Germany's Social Democratic Party spent under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder during the entire federal election campaign in 2002.

So money and the amount of time the candidates have to deploy and sharpen their message clearly have an impact on the effectiveness of the campaign. But they are only partly to blame for what is generally considered to be an uninspired election campaign.

Barack Obama in Berlin last year

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama waves to the crowd in Berlin during his speech last year

"We don't have an Obama," is the way Marco Althaus answers the question whether the characteristics of the main candidates - Chancellor Merkel of the Christian Democrats and challenger Steinmeier of the Social Democrats who are tied together in an uneasy grand coalition government - have anything to do with the lackluster campaign.

Lack of confrontational campaigning

"You have two candidates who have been working together for a very long time. They basically have the same character and the same outlook on policies," says Althaus. "It's not that they are personally dull, it's just that they are competent candidates that are not very disagreeable, that both stand for a sort of consensus politics that has been actually fairly successful. But campaigns live on contrast, they live on choices and there's not that much of a choice."

While both candidates for chancellor lack the charisma of Barack Obama, the special political constellation before the election is more to blame for the fact that the German public appears to be rather unfazed by the upcoming poll than Merkel's and Steinmeier's personal traits. "A very big reason is the grand coalition which is blocking each other from entering the campaign in a classical way of confrontational campaigning," says Bieber.

The fact that the big parties have largely abstained so far from attacking each other could benefit the smaller parties, according to the experts. They also don't have an Obama figure among their candidates, but as opposition parties they have an easier time to go after the grand coalition government. What's more, say the experts, the Green party and the Free Democrats have also been most successful at adapting the lessons from Obama's campaign.

Both have been better at opening up their decision-making processes to voters than the big parties, says Althaus. "This is the key. It's not enough to present your party platform and try to find people on Facebook and other social communities and invite them to be just supporters. You also have to give them something to do and you have to give them a voice and I think the small parties have been a lot better at doing this. The larger parties, particularly the Social Democrats, still tend to have a top-down communication rather than bottom-up."

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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