Merkel’s main challenger, Peer Steinbrueck, also just dusted himself off from a week-long vacation and has been barnstorming from one half-timbered town square to another. According to many local observers, however, the battle remains as lukewarm as any in memory.
German candidates typically hit the trail just a few weeks before an election, spend far less than $50 million — pocket change by Obama-Romney standards — and yet draw voter turnout that, while declining, is well above U.S. levels.
“It’s sensible to have a short campaign,” said Heiko Geue, Steinbrueck’s campaign manager, in an interview in his spartan office at the Social Democrats’ red-bedecked Berlin headquarters, where a photograph of Karl Marx still has a place of pride in a hallway. “People decide a few days or the day of the election whether they’ll vote and which party to vote for.”
The difference is striking to people who have worked on campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic. U.S. campaigns, many note, are far more sophisticated but also more susceptible to the influence of big donors and to losing the attention of the electorate through sheer overexposure.
In Germany, a $10,000-a-head dinner with a candidate, a common fundraising tool in U.S. presidential races, is unimaginable. If Steinbrueck speaks at a dinner, Geue said, “he’ll explain what he is campaigning for, the issues. And then people decide how much to give.”
The amount of money that will go into Germany’s federal election this year is paltry by U.S. standards. Local news accounts put total campaign spending — for the entire parliament, by all of Germany’s political parties — at $93 million, much of it coming from public financing. Each side of the U.S. presidential election last year raised roughly $1.2 billion. German campaign managers say they aren’t even sure what they’d do with that kind of money. Maybe buy more posters, one said.
“When I talk to my U.S. colleagues and I tell them about the number of [television] spots we have in our campaign, they ask, ‘Is that per hour?’ ” said Klaus Schueler, Merkel’s campaign manager. “I say no, that’s for the whole campaign.”
Even what counts as negative advertising is tame when compared with the United States. Steinbrueck’s cheekiest billboard is of a tired-looking Merkel and her coalition partner, with the slogan, “Best government since reunification
. . .
? Vote for change now.”
The difference, political analysts say, is that German culture isn’t used to any sort of negative advertising at all.