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

(Bloomberg) -- Martin Schulz insisted that the election is far from settled as he held rallies across Germany this week. Bloomberg’s poll tracker does indeed show Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic-led bloc slipping a point to 38 percent in the past week. But it also shows Schulz’s Social Democrats down 2 points to 22 percent. The beneficiaries? Alternative for Germany, which has jumped to 10 percent. That puts the AfD on course to take third place and become the first far-right force in the Bundestag since the war. With six parties projected to enter parliament for the first time in more than 60 years, coalition building after Sept. 24 looks set to become a whole lot harder.

Here’s what else we learned:

Merkel Mum on Schulz

Schulz ratcheted up his attacks on Merkel, though political watchers would be hard pressed to find a counterattack from the CDU chairwoman. Continuing her 50-stop campaign through the German heartland, the chancellor largely ignored Schulz—leaving his broadsides unanswered. “What do you expect?” said her party’s general secretary, Peter Tauber, as he launched election posters featuring the chancellor. “If you know Angela Merkel, you’ll see that the CDU is focusing on its own objectives.”

Emerging Patterns

Both main candidates headed north on Monday, with Schulz kicking off his rallies in Bremen and Merkel appearing in Sankt Peter-Ording, an upscale North Sea coastal resort where she made her pitch to a crowd of mostly vacationers, some feasting on lobster and sipping wine. Soon after Schulz spoke in Bremen, a city governed by Social Democrats since 1945, Merkel was campaigning to the west in Cloppenburg, a small town on the plains of Lower Saxony. There’s a pattern emerging, with Merkel hitting smaller communities where the CDU base is stronger and Schulz courting urban voters more amenable to the SPD. Their paths won’t cross until the only televised debate of the campaign in Berlin on Sept. 3.

Of Mice and Merkel

After being bounced out of parliament in 2013, polls all point to a return from the political wilderness of Germany’s business-friendly Free Democratic Party. As the traditional ally of Merkel’s bloc since the early 1980s—and her second-term partner—that would put the FDP in a position to rekindle the heyday of the center-right coalition that dominated under Helmut Kohl.

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

Not so fast. Governing is not at the top of the FDP’s agenda, according to Otto Fricke, a member of the party’s leadership who is bidding to re-enter the Bundestag. “If you could be a mouse and listen to when we have these board meetings of the FDP, you would find out that that isn’t really the debate,” Fricke told Bloomberg Television.

The Kids are all Right

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

Merkel turned her attention to young voters as she stopped by at Gamescom in Cologne, Europe’s biggest computer-gaming convention. Merkel’s party has a woeful record of appealing to younger voters: it polled last among the 18-to-25 age group in 2013, and a study released this week ranked her last on Facebook engagement. Whisper it, but she’s not even on Twitter. So Merkel’s appearance alongside cosplayers like Little Big Planet’s Sackboy and Roxas from Kingdom Hearts may help appeal to the estimated 3 million first-time voters in play. Still glowing over the visit hours later at a rally in Muenster, Merkel was asked for her main takeaway. “I learned that two-thirds of young people play, and half of adults,” Merkel told the crowd. “That was terrific.”

There’s no Avoiding Trump

Much as Merkel avoids mentioning President Donald Trump at rallies, she just can’t seem to escape him. Schulz has turned attacks on Trump into a centerpiece of his stump speech, urging Merkel do more to face down the U.S. president. But voters still want to know: What does she really think of him? Merkel’s response at an expansive panel discussion revealed a restrained dose of realpolitik. Trump was democratically elected, according to U.S. rules, and so deserves respect, she said. “Each of us represents the interests of our countries and our citizens, and we have to try to do as much as we can to advance these interests,” she added. “This is not about being friends or being in a family.”

Or the Diesel Scandal

Thousands of environment-conscious car owners who thought they were opting for clean diesel have been shocked to learn the value of their vehicle may have plummeted after the emissions scandal, and they could even face a ban in some inner cities. “I’m angry,” Merkel has taken to saying. Schulz has taken a harder line. An informal door-to-door survey by the CDU has shown that the diesel emissions scandal is resonating with voters, with many feeling left in the lurch. Expect more campaign comments to come.

To contact the authors of this story: Patrick Donahue in Berlin at pdonahue1@bloomberg.net, Arne Delfs in Berlin at adelfs@bloomberg.net.