Many countries, including Germany, restrict political advertising on television, so the airwaves are largely silent. And unlike U.S. presidential candidates, who sometimes appear in three states in a single day, Merkel, 59, is keeping a more leisurely pace ahead of the Sept. 22 vote. She just took a three-week vacation and will spend several Sundays off the trail between now and Election Day.
Steinbrueck, 66, is spending even fewer days at big public rallies, although his vacation lasted only a week and he has been campaigning in a lower-key way against Merkel since he was selected as a candidate by a conclave of 35 party grandees in October.
This year’s election is calmer than usual, in part because of Merkel’s popularity among voters who feel she successfully defended German pocketbooks from the worst of Europe’s economic crisis.
The center-left Steinbrueck, meanwhile, has stumbled from gaffe to gaffe, saying that Merkel was popular because she was a woman and calling for higher pay for chancellors, which currently stands at $272,000 per year.
Merkel’s personal approval ratings tower above Steinbrueck’s — 54 percent compared with 23 percent, according to a recent Forsa poll. But Steinbrueck stands a chance of building a coalition with smaller left-wing parties.
In an election season dominated by disputes over how to respond to Europe’s economic ills and whether Germany’s middle class is threatened, Steinbrueck must swiftly convince voters that he would be a better steward of the country’s finances than Merkel, who hails from the center-right Christian Democratic party but has adopted many of the Social Democrats’ policies, such as advocating a minimum wage and slightly easing austerity pressure on economically troubled southern European countries.
The timing of the campaigns is made easier by Germany’s size. With 80 million people crammed into an area roughly the size of Montana, candidates simply have less land to cover. And because of the parliamentary system, the political party is the main attraction on the ballot, not the candidate.
“In the United States, the stress is almost unbearable,” said Frank Stauss, an advertising and campaign consultant who has worked on German campaigns as well as the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign. In Germany, there are few campaign volunteers. Further, there is no tradition of bumper stickers, and strict privacy rules all but prohibit the kind of data-driven get-out-the-vote efforts that helped propel Obama to victory twice. Germany is “kindergarten” compared with the United States, Stauss said.
Even on a foreshortened campaign schedule, though, anything can happen.
There are still weeks to go, “so maybe it’s still going to be competitive,” said Hans Meyer, an election-law expert at Humboldt University in Berlin.
Petra Krischok contributed to this report.