German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s calendar this past week looked like this: unpack from an Italian vacation, catch up with advisers and kick off a campaign with a small-town rally for an election that will be held in just five weeks. In the United States, the 2016 campaign is well under way, with contenders jostling to give speeches in the battleground state of Iowa. But in Germany, where regulations keep political ads largely off the airwaves, the sleepy federal election campaign fired up only last week, when parties were finally allowed to string up signs on light poles. Merkel’s main challenger, Peer Steinbrueck, also just dusted himself off from a weeklong vacation and has been barnstorming from one half-timbered town square to another, although according to many local observers, the battle remains as lukewarm as any in memory. German candidates typically hit the trail just a few weeks before an election, spend far less than $50 million — pocket change by Obama-Romney standards — and yet draw voter turnout that, while declining, is still well above U.S. levels. “It’s sensible to have a short campaign,” said Heiko Geue, Steinbrueck’s campaign manager, in an interview in his spartan office at the Social Democrats’ red-bedecked Berlin headquarters. “People decide a few days or the day of the election whether they’ll vote and which party to vote for.”
The difference is striking to people who have worked on campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic. U.S. campaigns, many note, are far more sophisticated but also more susceptible to the influence of big donors and to losing the attention of the electorate through sheer overexposure.
In Germany, a $10,000-a-head dinner with a candidate, a common fundraising tool in U.S. presidential races, is unimaginable. If Steinbrueck speaks at a dinner, Geue said, “he’ll explain what he is campaigning for, the issues. And then people decide how much to give.”
The amount of money that will go into Germany’s federal election this year is paltry by U.S. standards. Local news accounts put total campaign spending — for the entire parliament, by all of Germany’s political parties — at $93 million, much of it coming from public financing. Each side of the U.S. presidential election last year raised roughly $1.2 billion. German campaign managers say they aren’t even sure what they’d do with that kind of money. Maybe buy more posters, one said.