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Frank Stauss (c) Bernhard Huber
Image: Bernhard Huber

Dull, duller, dullest

Interview: Marie Todeskino / gsw
September 8, 2013

Seasoned campaign manager Frank Stauss says he's been left yawning at the election offensives of the two main rivals in Germany's federal polls this year, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats.


Gerhard Schröder versus Angela Merkel, Bill Clinton versus George Bush and the first free election in the GDR. Since 1990, Frank Stauss has accompanied countless election campaigns in Germany and abroad. His recent book, published in German under the title "Höllenritt Wahlkampf: Ein Insiderbericht" (Election Ride through Hell: An Insider's Report), gives a behind-the-scenes peek at how campaigns are staged. The book has come out in the run-up to Germany's general election on September 22, 2013.

DW: With just two weeks to go before the German election, how would you assess the campaign so far?

Frank Stauss: The current state of affairs is unfortunately very predictable. It was to be expected that the CDU would put on a campaign stressing a certain feel-good factor. Surveys reveal that 76 percent of Germans report being either satisfied or very satisfied with their personal situations. That leads governing parties to try and harness this feeling for themselves. However, it's terribly dull.

Two campaign signs shown side by side on a grassy corner Photo: Stefan Sauer/dpa
German campaign signs are ubiquitous around the countryImage: picture-alliance/dpa

That's true of the aesthetics and the words, as well. On the other hand, the SPD campaign is also very predictable. There's an attempt to show people that they're not doing so well by taking up topics like poverty among the elderly or the lack of daycare. Ultimately, it's a relatively joyless campaign where we have two foreseeable opposites being put on the signs.

Angela Merkel seems not to be campaigning at all. But she's favored much moreso than SPD candidate Peer Steinbrück. Why is that?

After her quite long service as chancellor, Angela Merkel has become a kind of personal confidante to the Germans. She has not made any grave mistakes. She also has this aura of having looked after our money during the euro crisis and turned down a number of greedy requests from Europe. And of course, the strategy is: If you don't do anything, you can't do anything wrong.

You've been conducting campaigns since the early 90s. What, if anything, has changed since then?

It's definitely the speed. One of the first campaigns in which I took part was the People's Chamber campaign in the GDR, so the first free election in East Germany in 1990. Communication with the party members took place partly via telegram. On the other hand, there's the news cycle, which has changed dramatically. In 1990, it consisted of a daily newspaper at breakfast, a little radio during the day and TV news at night. Now we have 24-hour online campaigns. You really have to watch around the clock what's going on and where. So there are entire armies of people sitting in the campaign centers checking to see if an issue pops up anywhere that one will have to react to.

Angela Merkel speaks at a campaign event, flanked by a large monitor showing her face Copyright: DW/Marcus Lütticke
Merkel is running on a "feel-good" campaign, Stauss saysImage: DW/M. Lütticke

The Internet is a keyword. Everyone gushes about US President Barack Obama's online campaign. How important is the Internet really in a campaign?

People like to say that everything is decided online. But it's really the case that elections are decided everywhere. They're decided just as much in the street as at the cafeteria or over a chat with the baker. That means you have to be present everywhere. In terms of advertisement and the classic modes of communication, Obama didn't just abandon everything in favor of the Internet. Even in his second campaign, he invested 22 times more money in classic campaigning compared to online media.

Your agency also does ads for normal products like yoghurt or butter. How's that different from election advertising?

My yoghurt doesn't give any interviews or go off on some nonsense in the news (laughs). The main difference is that such products get very little attention in the news. Normally, with conventional advertising, the ads you do for the product are pretty much the only thing that gets put out there. With just a few exceptions, I have up to 100 percent of the control over the message. By contrast, around 90 percent of political communication gets filtered through journalism. That means that the recipients get a commentated or otherwise evaluated report, so that if I want a direct line to voters I have to purchase space in the media to communicate.

Democratic presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) speaks during a rally at Progress Plaza October 11, 2008 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Photo by Jeff Fusco/Getty Images)
The right slogan: Barack Obama speaking at an election rally in 2008Image: Getty Images

You've primarily administered campaigns for the SPD. To what degree do you have to agree with the policies that you're representing?

We are, in fact, managing our first election campaign for a conservative party - namely for the ÖVP in Austria. Of course, as a team, we asked ourselves: Are we going to do that? I think it helps in general if you identify with what the party is calling for. I don't want to work for anyone who is skeptical of Europe or nationalistic. Or for someone who doesn't take protection of minorities seriously. Those are my personal no-go's.

In your book, you describe campaigning as a journey into hell. So why are you so fascinated by it?

I don't know either (laughs). Some people get a kick out of bungee jumping. I get it out of election campaigns. Of course, it has to do with this absolute deadline and the fact that there are so many things you simply can't control. For me, I just love democracy. I think it's crazy that we have one day every four years - in Germany, too - where between 45 and 50 million people go to voting booths and mark their ballots. It makes me happy to contribute to that.

Peer Steinbrück holds a speech in parliament Photo: Tim Brakemeier/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Peer Steinbrück is Merkel's main challenger in the September 22 pollsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Political scientist Frank Stauss, born in 1965, began his campaigning career during the 1992 Clinton/Gore campaign. His campaigns have received the Politikaward five times over - the highest prize for political communication in Germany. He runs an advertising agency and teaches political communication at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf.

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