BERLIN -- It’s the day before the German election, and Stefan Liebich, a member of the Bundestag for the far-left Die Linke party, is standing on the sidewalk at a busy intersection, smiling and shaking hands. He has a boombox and an assistant who fills up crimson balloons that say “Really Red” -- to differentiate them from the slightly-less-red balloons being inflated by their rivals, the Social Democrats (SPD), who have a similar setup just a few feet away.
He’s in peak campaigning mode, yet he takes a 45-minute break to talk to a group of foreign journalists, including me, who can’t vote and don’t speak German.
Liebich’s casual arrangement seems fitting for someone running for, say, student council in the U.S., but he’s actually just a few thousand votes from losing his seat in parliament if Die Linke doesn’t garner a large enough percentage in the upcoming election. He says he is “excited” to see whether or not he makes it in.
It may seem barebones, but this is a typical last-day campaign event for a parliamentarian in Germany, where campaigns get government funding, parties are allocated TV advertising time, and microtargeting of voters is unthinkable.
To Americans who rarely get a respite from partisan vitriol, fundraising requests, and attack ads during campaign season, it’s almost enough to make you want to brush up on the college German and head to the visa office.
“It is completely different from the States,” Liebich said. “And I’m happy about it.”
But the scale of the campaign is just the start. There are no attack ads, because, in post-reunification in German culture, “the attacker would always turn out to be the loser,” Liebich explains.
Each party creates just one 90-second ad for the entire election, and the number of times it airs on TV is proportional to the number of votes the party garnered in the last election. For smaller parties like Die Linke, that means about four times on each of the two major channels. Total. In the last U.S. election, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both spent more than $400 million each on TV ads, the vast majority of them negative.
Unlike in the U.S., where elected officials start campaigning almost as soon as they set foot in office, German campaigns last only six weeks. Because there are small parties to soak up hardline voters, as well as a lack of primaries -- candidates are put on a party list -- there’s also no need for candidates to swing wildly toward a radical base for one part of the election, then gradually ease toward the center as it wears on. (Though one could argue that a list is less democratic than a primary.)
Die Linke’s total campaign cost just 4 million euros (about $5.4 million) -- for all of its candidates across the entire country. The German government and party-membership dues pay for the bulk of the country’s political campaigns, while corporate and individual donations make up just one-third of the cost.
And for the entire election season, even the larger campaigns of main parties, like the SPD or Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, cost somewhere between 20 and 30 million euros -- and again, that’s the total for everyone from Chancellor Angela Merkel to the most junior parliamentarians, combined. Meanwhile, a single U.S. Senate seat now costs an average of $10.5 million to win, and Obama’s reelection campaign alone cost $700 million -- excluding money from PACs, which don’t exist in Germany.
In the U.S., being rich can partly help solve the problem of where to get all those campaign dollars, but Liebich says he spent very little of his own money, except for on a small “really red” Mini Cooper he bought to both advertise the party and to drive around after the election is over.
A pleasant side effect of these government-funded, low-dollar elections is that German politicians spend very little of their time fundraising. Meanwhile, in Washington, lawmakers devote, as Reuters reported, “up to four or five hours a day ... in tough re-election campaigns -- in telemarketing-style cubicles a few hundred yards from the Capitol.”
“In the U.S., it seems you spend too much time raising money instead of taking care of the daily parliamentary work,” Liebich said
German elections aren’t totally sleepy, though: The headquarters of the SPD, Merkel’s main opposition, was buzzing on the eve of the election, and Thorben Albrecht, the party’s director of policy planning, said he hadn’t spent time with his family in weeks.
His party was busy knocking on 5 million doors, something unprecedented as far as German campaigns go. The only problem? They had no idea whose doors they were -- supporters, opponents, swing voters -- because Germany doesn’t do microtargeting.
The memory of the Stasi, the secret police who spied on East Germans before reunification, looms so large there that Germans are wary of releasing any information about themselves to anyone. Even voters I tried to interview on election day seemed reluctant to tell me their names or who they cast their ballots for.
“A lot of things that are popular in the U.S. are not popular here, like keeping track of who is a Democrat or a Republican,” he explained. “The public would revolt if we did microtargeting.”
There’s no doubt that the German campaigns, which are similar to others in Europe, outshine America’s years-long, staggeringly expensive, and bitterly negative ones in many ways.
Plenty of studieshave suggested that negative campaigning causes voters to grow disenchanted with politics and can even suppress turnout. And indeed, German turnout is higher: About 57.5 percent of eligible voters turned out in the 2012 U.S. election compared to 71.5 percent in Germany last week. But other factors might have influenced that: One of our guides said there was no line when she went to vote, for example, and voting takes place on a weekend, not a Tuesday like in the U.S.
The system isn’t without its flaws. The dominant German party, the CDU, was enmeshed in a campaign-finance scandal in the late ’90s -- the Schwarzgeldaffäre -- over undisclosed donations that ultimately brought down former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. And to this day, there aren’t any limits on what German individuals and corporations can give, so their comparative restraint appears to be self-imposed, and campaign giving there could eventually go the American way.
Still, the entire thing had the feel of an extremely boring reality-TV contest, rather than an election that would determine the government of the largest economy in Europe. During her last rally, Merkel preceded her speech with a brief interview about how tired she was -- she had appeared at more than 60 campaign events! -- behind a podium that she shared with two (much taller) men, the sort of thing an “optics”-obsessed U.S. politician would never do. A few hours after Merkel’s opponent, Peer Steinbruck, conceded on election night, the two rivals chatted nicely with one another behind a desk on a primetime TV show. After Merkel’s former coalition partner, the FDP, lost their seats in the Bundestag, its leader immediately gave a speech self-flagellating on public TV.
“We must admit candidly and openly that this is the worst result we have ever achieved,” he said.
To American ears -- especially those in swing states -- this may sound refreshing, but German experts I spoke with here said there’s also a downside to their tame, minimalist campaigns.
The first televised debate between German candidates for chancellor didn’t occur until 2002. Since there’s only one debate for each election cycle and little Internet advertising, people tend to get their information through more rudimentary means, like word of mouth. Or, they don’t.
Part of the indecision stems from the lack of the sort of obstinacy that’s become the trademark of American politics: Merkel has absorbed many of her rivals’ platforms, glossing over some of the key differences between the parties and, some think, causing confusion for voters.
“She has at times become so Social Democratized, some people say the parties are too similar,” said Hans-Ulrich Klose, a member of the Bundestag for the Social Democrats, Merkel’s rival party. A few German media outlets have pointed out that voter turnout, though still high by global standards, is dropping, and party membership is declining as well. Taken too far, too much homogeneity could eventually be just as bad for decision-making as American-style gridlock.
“We need two strong parties for a strong democratic system,” Klose said. “Otherwise … it will eventually lead to paralysis.”
So which is better, frenzied U.S. campaigns or the more leicht German ones?
Well, as with many inter-country comparisons, it depends what you want. A few years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that companies are like people when it comes to political speech. If you’re an American CEO, you probably like that.
Likewise, if you’re concerned about the national deficit, you might hate the idea of publicly funded campaigns and think politicians should just pay their own way (with donations or personal funds) into office.
Germany also has a ton of smaller parties, like Liebich’s, that exist to bring up specific ideas or to mobilize single-issue voters. (Liebich won his seat back, by the way. “I’m very proud of this result,” he said in a Facebook post thanking his supporters.) This year, these small parties included an anti-euro party called the AFD and a “Pirate” party that stood for Internet freedom. But these groups don’t really strive to get any bigger -- they’re generally just happy to maintain their numbers from the previous election, usually somewhere in the realm of 5 to 12 percent of the vote. But they do serve as kind of a release valve for extreme beliefs, potentially making it less likely that debates within big parties would become hijacked by the fringe.
The biggest difference is that the parliamentary system, in Germany and elsewhere, seems to encourage consensus. Germany’s parties -- sometimes even major rivals like the SPD and CDU -- have to form governments together and agree on major decisions, even if they just finished running against each other. If you’re a candidate for chancellor, you can’t eviscerate your opponent in a nasty attack ad, because two months later you might be working shoulder to shoulder to try to fix the euro crisis.
Germans are especially fans of this kind of political harmony because of their national bogeyman, “history” -- which I learned in my four days there is a euphemism for “Holocaust.” Between the kaisers, the Nazis, and the Communists, the country has seen its fair share of rancor, and for the past few decades they’ve been relieved just to have a little peace, love, and civil campaigning.
“After the strong and bloody ideologies of the 20th century, Germans are fed up,” Eckart von Klaeden, a CDU member of the Bundestag, said. “They appreciate pragmatism.”