German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Barack Obama:
Lesson in how incumbents can win during hard economic times.
Change' Election Formula Will Work Like a Charm for Merkel (SueddeutscheZeitung, Germany)
turbulent times, a conservative trust in the tried-and-true is most appealing: What
is being called for today is caregiver leadership. ... Usually in the United
States, the rule is that high unemployment and poor economic data invariably
lead to a loss of power. That was evidently not the case with this election. In
spite of the unfavorable economic data, voters had in the back of their minds that
'he prevented the worst.'"
Merkel supporter Helga Schuetz shows a signature of the chancellor during an election rally in Koblenz, Germany, in 2009. Merkel looks well-positioned to win a third term next year, with voters looking for a safe pair of hands rather than a reformer or change-agent.
To learn from Obama
is to learn to win. Merkel also has a good chance in her upcoming election as
well - as crisis chancellor. With a forced passivity, she navigates her way
through crises. For many voters, that is enough.
No comparison? Let's skip the ritual incantation about
the differences between the U.S. and Germany which makes all similarities suspect.
Democracies can be compared. We can't help but project voter behavior and
strategies from the American presidential election onto the upcoming Bundestag
Unless the mood for change is present, the status quo
reasserts itself. In the debt crisis, the executive is benefiting more than
ever from his dramatic handling of crisis-summits. Taking advantage of incumbency,
Obama intoned: "I have prevented the worst!"
Elections are never harvest festivals for governments: In
the voting booth, what is generally rewarded is the assumed future competence
of the candidate. This time, however, the perpetual sound of the financial
crisis mixes audibly with the future needs of the public. There is no other way
to explain how the slogan "No Change" can win elections. In turbulent
times, a conservative trust in the tried-and-true is most appealing: What is being
called for today is caregiver leadership.
Usually in the United States, the rule is that high
unemployment and poor economic data invariably lead to a loss of power. That
was evidently not the case with this election. In spite of the unfavorable
economic data, voters had in the back of their minds that "he prevented
the worst." More than ever, the standard of measurement is based on
experience, competence, and credibility. In times of crisis, successful
politicians are those most likely to be competent managers of risk.
Politicians have difficulty making decisions under
conditions characterized by high complexity, uncertainty, time pressure and
lack of knowledge. This must be communicated to voters. The globalized
financial crisis is also a crisis of knowledge for which no master plan is
available. Therefore, managing with confidence when there is a lack of
knowledge becomes a power resource for president and chancellor. Seen this way,
the phenomenon of "leadership voting" can be easily applied to Angela Merkel. As chancellor/president,
Merkel garners high points when it comes to personal sympathy. With a forced
passivity, she navigates her way through crises without any suggestion of
knowing the way out. Voters know enough that they practice a relaxed fatalism. In
Germany - as in the United States this year - the competition between parties
in 2013 will have more to do with security than justice. Budgetary discipline
is a top priority for voters. The election will be a struggle over the
exclusive right of interpretation over the euro crisis.
Merkel's predictable formula is: "I'm taking care of
our euro!" That makes Peer Steinbrück's proposal to break the power of the banks
sound like the ideal platform for the vice chancellorship [Steinbrück
is the opposition Social Democratic Party candidate for chancellor]. That
Merkel recently declared that the euro crisis could last another five years
fits into the mindset of 2012. "Four more years" - I need even more
time to solve the problems - that applies there as well as here. One year for
the election campaign plus a four-year legislative period add up to the five additional
Feelings and emotions play a greater role in American
election campaigns than in Germany. This was the case this time as well. Obama
authentically imparted, "I feel your pain." No big narrative of
"change" or "hope" adorned the campaign. The Democratic
Party operated in a manner that was maudlin and compartmentalized in the
extreme. What could be more obvious than for Merkel to put her money on the
same method? As a case-by-case politician without the option of a connecting
story line, her policy management has always had more of a feel-your-way style.
People consider her to be a caregiver whose actions are not for effect. She is
trusted when it comes to sensing how voters are doing. Although she effectively
moves in the unreal world of politics, we are still left with the impression
that her politics are neither removed from reality nor power-obsessed. She now
leads a colorful, fragmented society. It is only during election campaigns that
watered down versions of the factions are artificially brought into position to
mobilize Merkel's own supporters.
offline and online worlds
In spite of an extremely heterogeneous electorate, Obama was
able to effectively garner over three million more voters than his challenger
Romney. Obama gathered minorities in order to achieve a majority. This approach
could translate into multi-party-coalitions in the German party race. If Merkel
should be faced with six parties in the German Bundestag, she can likely be
relied upon to forge an electoral coalition of almost any variety. The Christian
Democratic Union [Merkel's party] has to a large extent lost its relevance, but
remains attractive to the electorate, which is increasingly pragmatic as
opposed to being inclined to commit to a particular party. Merkel has perfected
dissent management in the current Berlin coalition. As an educational
foundation, this experience could help a potential third term Merkel Cabinet depict
itself as a colorful and diverse coalition.
transfer from the United States to Germany in terms of actual campaign
techniques is problematic. The bourgeois suspicion of German voters nips
in the bud any scheme that would involve voluntarily providing personal
information on attitudes and reactions to parties. But we can learn by
extrapolation: What does the campaign planners' image of voters look like,
specifically?Despite the overall trend toward
digitization, the U.S. campaign shows that there is nothing more important to
voting and decision-making behavior than personal interaction. In this respect,
American campaigns have retained - alongside digital modernity - a retro look. Town
hall meetings were strongly pushed because voting decisions are transmitted
through people of trust. If it is someone we trust, we will follow that person in their
commitment to a party.
Posted by Worldmeets.US
The connection between the offline and online worlds is
the key: Whom and how voters trust can now be measured with Twitter: Whether
Merkel's Christian Democrats will make better use of this than others is
doubtful. In any event, the party will use the high popularity numbers of its
top candidate. In times of tight majorities, the value of polling rises. Those
who manage to mobilize people with self-fulfilling, public-opinion research, will
convince more independent, situational voters, and will win
crucial gains in the home stretch.
Even with the movement in the party competition, which
will continue right up until the Bundestag elections, the odds for Merkel are
good. The momentum in the United States is reverberating on the German variant
of the game. Chancellor/President Merkel can learn a lot from Obama.
*Karl Rudolf Korte
is a professor of political science at the Universität
Duisburg-Essen. He conducts research into the relationships among party
strategies, the media, and voter behavior.