How to Win a German Election

The tactics used by the parties to persuade undecided voters and to turn out supporters could make the difference between taking the chancellery or heading to the opposition benches.

As the German election heads to a photo finish this Sunday, the Social Democrats (SPD) are narrowly leading in the polling average but around 25% of voters remain undecided. The tactics used by the parties to persuade undecided voters and to turn out supporters could make the difference between taking the chancellery or heading to the opposition benches.

I’m writing from Berlin, where colorful placards line the streets and digital ads fill up news websites and Facebook feeds.  Candidates and party canvassers have been knocking on doors and distributing literature in town squares across the Federal Republic for weeks.  The SPD is the largest party in the country, with over 400,000 members, giving it a broad volunteer base to deploy.  

Different tactics  

Any observer familiar with American-style elections would immediately notice two major differences in how the German campaign is being waged.  First, unlike in the US, where campaigns, party committees, and dark money outside groups flood the airwaves with millions of dollars’ worth of television ads, the German campaign requires more creativity to “break through” and effectively communicate with the electorate.  

The parties are given strictly monitored timeslots on the public television stations for limited runs of their political broadcasts, like this one from the SPD.  But the reach and frequency of these advertisements barely registers compared to what any television viewer in a swing state or district would see in the US (I’ve been involved in US campaigns where more than 25 television ads per hour were aired in the lead-up to the election).  It’s likely that the party broadcasts reach more voters by being shared on social media than viewed television – this spot from the Green Party almost certainly did, for better or for worse).

Second, European Union data protection laws (GDPR) are interpreted especially strictly in Germany, so the utilization of individual-level commercial or political information to micro-target voters for persuasion and turnout –  a campaign practice commonplace in places like the US – is simply not an option for German campaigners.  Candidates and canvassers can broadly target neighborhoods for door-knocking – for example, the SPD is focused on areas where Merkel performed well in past campaigns, but the far-right AfD party failed to make inroads – or are relegated to more passive forms of communication like staffing the ubiquitous party “info- stands” in town squares. 

Digital and analog 

This elevates the importance of organic social media and digital advertising to reach voters.  The SPD has executed an engaging social media campaign across channels and is especially effective on Twitter and Instagram.  The parties have also been running ads on news websites and platforms like Facebook and Instagram (users on those platforms have already consented to some amount of data being used to target advertising, making the platforms of great value as parties look for ways to reach persuadable voters). 

Over the last 30 days, the Greens have been the dominant advertiser on Facebook, spending €515,000. The conservative CDU spent €418,000 and the SPD spent just under €200,000 according to Facebook’s advertising archive.  When looking at the just the last week, however, the Greens are still out front spending €265,000, but the SPD has outspent the CDU €135,000 to €117,000. 

While digital advertising is increasingly part of modern campaigning, the biggest expense for German parties is still decidedly analog: posters and signs in party colors featuring the chancellor candidates, candidates seeking direct election at the constituency level, and platform positions.  The first posters were deployed in August and heralded the start of the election campaign to voters who likely hadn’t been paying attention.  The SPD poster campaign, developed by Hamburg-based advertising agency Brinkert Lück is roundly considered to be the most effective. Dramatically shot, black and white photos of the SPD’s chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz pop against a vibrant red background.  The other parties’ posters feature more conventional-looking photography and design - except for the Greens, whose posters are washed out with several shades of, well, green (leading one German advertising expert to pan them as reminiscent of drowned bodies). 

Two votes

The posters are littered across Germany’s 299 constituencies, each of which will send a member to the Bundestag. Germans have two votes on their ballots. The first is for this directly-elected member.  

But it’s the second vote that the press, prognosticators, and party strategists obsess over.  This vote determines the partisan makeup of the Bundestag. Each directly-elected member is seated, and then lists drawn up by the parties are tapped to fill the rest of the seats that they may be entitled to based on their performance on the second vote.  To ensure balance, this means the size of the Bundestag is elastic: currently there are 410 seats allocated from the lists, but many expect this to number to increase after the next election.

The second vote is the closest German voters come to directly electing the chancellor.  The last round of polling before the election shows that 47% of voters prefer Olaf Scholz to be the chancellor. Because he is substantially outperforming the SPD’s poll position, the party’s closing message is “wer Scholz will, wälht SPD” – if you want Scholz [as Chancellor], vote for the SPD.  

After all the rallies, posters, digital ads and door knocks, that simple message is the SPD’s best hope to deliver a plurality of seats on Sunday. Polls close at 6pm German time (noon on the US east coast) and the exit poll should publish shortly thereafter. Results for the second question typically come in quickly, so we’ll know the composition of the Bundestag later that evening. But it will likely be weeks if not months before coalition negotiations produce the next government.

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