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.”
Indeed, braced for an avalanche of pre-election television advertising, I channel-surfed in vain for a single German campaign commercial, only to be informed that each party is given a set amount of time, based on voter share, on the two public networks. Ads from the two main parties — Merkel’s CDU and the left-of-center Social Democrats — ran eight times on each channel; smaller parties were consigned to four.
The parties can purchase time on private networks as well, but the relative paucity of funds limits such airings; the Merkel ad was slated to run 140 times, while the Obama campaign ran more than 100,000 ads in Ohio alone.
The Merkel ad, by the way, offered a fascinating glimpse of cross-cultural gender politics. With 90 seconds of the chancellor speaking directly to the camera, it featured close-ups of jowls and wrinkles that no female politician in the United States — indeed, that no female politician’s opponent in the United States — would dare risk.
And for U.S. visitors inured to tight security, campaign events here were disconcertingly open; even at Merkel’s final rally, supporters did not have to pass through the metal detectors ubiquitous at American campaign events.
But perhaps the most astonishing for those immersed in the polarized American political landscape is the edges-rounded-off nature of the German political debate. U.S. voters may say they want their politicians to cooperate and compromise, but a system built on party primaries and gerrymandered districts pushes relentlessly toward division.
In theory, a multi-party arrangement accommodates and reflects a wider range of political views. In Merkel’s Germany, it has resulted in a race to the middle — not just in forming a coalition government but in the campaign itself.
Merkel has been so unabashed in co-opting the positions of her opponents that she makes Bill Clinton look like an amateur triangulator. On nuclear energy, long opposed by the Green Party, Merkel, post-Fukushima, abandoned her support. On establishing a national minimum wage, a key difference with Social Democrats, Merkel declined to go that far but endorsed the concept.
Meanwhile, the debate roiling Europe about the continent’s struggling economies was mostly a non-issue during the campaign, as the major parties backed Merkel’s tough-love approach.
Merkel frustrated opponents but reassured voters with endless campaign platitudes. “Merkel has many good slogans. They’re all empty bubbles,” Peer Steinbruck, the Social Democratic candidate, lamented at his closing rally in East Berlin.
Such election froth would, no doubt, be maddening to cover. But it offered a soothing respite from the arrows-flying atmosphere of divided Washington and the permanent campaign.
Ruth Marcus is an editorial editor for The Washington Post.