The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

Opinion

September 28, 2013

Campaigning the old-fashioned way

BERLIN — For a visitor from the land of win-at-any-cost elections and ceaseless partisanship, the election that just concluded here, resulting in a triumphant third term for Chancellor Angela Merkel, offers a glimpse of politics from another planet.

On the most technical level is the fact that the campaign, by American standards, was fleetingly short and bargain-basement cheap. No surprise there, except the magnitude of the financial gulf. Merkel spent about $27 million, mostly in public funds, during the six-week campaign — and that was for the entire slate of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU). By contrast, the Obama re-election campaign alone spent $700 million — not including extra cash from the party or outside groups.

More surprising, as emerged in the course of a visit organized by the German Marshall Fund, was the relative absence of the modern arsenal of high-tech campaign weaponry. It has become common for other countries to import the techniques and even the operatives of American political campaigns, but the German way is creakily old-fashioned.

The notion of data-driven micro-targeting is offensive to Germans, for whom the idea that a political party would purchase information about voters’ preferences and behaviors evokes unwelcome history of overbearing government. Even the most rudimentary of information — voters’ party preferences and records of participation — is unavailable here.

Two days before the election, Thorben Albrecht, director of policy planning for the left-of-center Social Democratic Party, Merkel’s likely partner in a new coalition government, proudly described his party’s plan to knock on 5 million doors, even if they didn’t know what voters they were contacting. “It’s never been done here before,” he said of the canvassing.

Likewise, another staple of modern American politics — negative advertising — was absent, for the simple reason that it would be certain to backfire. “We don’t attack each other,” Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament from the Left Party said as he campaigned in a gentrifying district in East Berlin. “Germans wouldn’t like it.”

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