BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s calendar this past week looked like this: unpack from an Italian vacation, catch up with advisers and kick off a campaign with a small-town rally for an election that will be held in just five weeks.
In the United States, the 2016 campaign is well underway, with contenders jostling to give speeches in the battleground state of Iowa. But here in Germany, where regulations keep political ads largely off the airwaves, the sleepy federal election campaign fired up only last week, when parties were finally allowed to string up signs on light poles.
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.
“In Germany, it’s forbidden to compare two products. You can’t put a Volkswagen next to a Ford and say one is thirstier than another,” meaning it uses more gas, said Gero Neugebauer, an expert on German politics and a professor emeritus of political science at the Free University of Berlin. “It’s not allowed. And so that’s part of German expectations.”
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.