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 under way, with contenders jostling to give speeches in the battleground state of Iowa. But 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 weeklong vacation and has been barnstorming from one half-timbered town square to another, although according to many local observers, 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 still 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. “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 advertisements are tame when compared to 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 an emeritus professor 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 make appearances 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 against Merkel in a lower-key way ever since he was selected as candidate last October.
This year’s election is even 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 fatter paychecks for chancellors, which currently stand at $272,000 per year.
Merkel’s personal approval ratings tower over Steinbrueck’s — 54 percent compared to 23 percent, according to a recent Forsa poll. But Steinbrueck stands a chance of building a workable coalition with smaller left-wing parties.