What We Learned on the German Election Campaign Trail: Week One

(Bloomberg) -- Chancellor Angela Merkel, still well ahead of her Social Democratic rival Martin Schulz in the polls, held rallies across Germany this week at the start of the “hot phase” of campaigning for the Sept. 24 election. Here’s what we learned:

Some voters are angry

The uncontrolled influx of refugees into Germany which consumed Merkel’s chancellorship from the summer of 2015 has ebbed. But the outrage it stoked in certain pockets of the German public is very much still around.

At least three of Merkel’s campaign stops this week were disrupted by right-wing protesters, outside Frankfurt in the west and in two towns in the formerly communist east. Demonstrators whistled and jeered at Merkel, many bearing placards from Alternative for Germany, or AfD, the populist party that’s capitalized on anti-immigration sentiment. All other parties shun the AfD, but polls show it’s on course to win seats in the federal parliament for the first time anyway; how many it takes could influence the shape of coalition formed after the vote.

The diesel scandal is political

The diesel-cheating scandal that has engulfed the German auto industry has proved a hot topic from the campaign’s outset. Schulz forcefully criticized Volkswagen AG and Daimler AG and Merkel chipped in by accusing carmakers of shirking responsibility, while underscoring the industry’s importance to Germany. By mid-week, she was warning against “demonizing” the industry -- a rebuke of her campaign rival for going too hard on the auto titans. How this plays with voters remains unclear.

Merkel shuns Trump

In a Bavarian beer tent three months ago, Merkel shook the foundations of the trans-Atlantic partnership when she said the days of reliable relations were “to some extent over.” It was a clear show of frustration with Donald Trump, on issues from climate to trade.

During the campaign, the U.S. president is an easy target for political leaders appealing to voters overwhelmingly appalled by Trump. For Schulz, Trump has become a standard attack line. The SPD leader pilloried him for his “unacceptable” response to Charlottesville. Merkel, on the other hand, has steered clear of mentioning Trump, so far at any rate.

Merkel goes with what works

The chancellor, 63 and in office for 12 years, is trying hard to reach out to young voters. This week she talked about her favorite emoji and her lack of sleep in a YouTube live interview. But on the campaign trail, old habits die hard. From Cuxhaven to Koblenz, the show’s the same: A cover band softens up the crowd with German folksy ‘Schlager’ hits before Merkel arrives, glad-hands locals and mounts the stage for one-on-one banter with a moderator (sample question: ‘Do you still cook for your husband?’) A brief introduction then Merkel delivers her stump speech, lasting about a half hour.

The speech varies little: a shout-out to halving German unemployment since 2005, a pledge to invest more in education and expand broadband access, and a nod to progress made since the refugee crisis. The event wraps up with a rendition of the German national anthem -- and Merkel may receive a gift from the locals. In Annaberg-Buchholz, it was a jumbo nutcracker in the shape of Martin Luther.

Schulz and Gabriel switch attack

When the Social Democrats chose Schulz as their candidate for chancellor in January, his predecessor as SPD leader, Sigmar Gabriel, took over the Foreign Ministry. The logic was simple: Schulz, outside government, would have more leverage to attack the chancellor. Except it hasn’t worked out that way.

Schulz said he wouldn’t attack Merkel on the refugee crisis, and has mostly stuck to that promise, while Gabriel has emerged as Merkel’s tormentor in chief. This week he lambasted her for not standing up to Trump and accused her of failing to address the diesel scandal. He then took part in an interview with Buzzfeed carried live on Facebook at exactly the same time she held her YouTube live event. Merkel had 1.2 millions views; Gabriel managed some 33,000.

Voters have yet to tune in

Even as she confronted protests this week, one stop -- in Cuxhaven on the North Sea coast -- went smoothly. But rather than locals, most of the crowd of more than 1,000 were vacationers who came to get a look at Europe’s de-facto leader. It was a reminder that in mid-August, many if not most Germans are still on the beaches. That’s reflected in the polls which stubbornly refused to budge. That may change next week when Schulz hits the campaign trail proper.