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BERLIN — Trailing in the polls less than a week before Germany’s general election, the governing Christian Democrats are learning the hard way just how much they depended on Angela Merkel.
Survey data shows that during her 16 years in office, Merkel’s pragmatic, centrist approach and unflappable manner helped her center-right CDU party build a coalition of voters consisting not only of traditional conservatives, but also of people who just liked the chancellor. That was especially true of women, older voters, and some centrists, according to the data.
“Merkel’s biggest asset is probably that people who wouldn’t otherwise support the CDU are totally comfortable supporting her,” said Marcel Dirsus, a political scientist and nonresident fellow at the University of Kiel. “She is in many ways the perfect centrist,” he added. “She really very rarely offends anyone, and it’s so difficult to dislike her personally.”
The share of voters who have deserted the CDU in recent weeks ahead of Sunday’s general election suggests that about one in every three people who backed the party four years ago did so because of Merkel, pollsters say.
With Merkel stepping down — and the CDU’s candidate to succeed her, Armin Laschet, proving deeply unpopular — many of these voters are defecting to the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and other parties. The as-yet unanswered question for CDU leaders is whether they’ll be able to win those voters back — either before or after polling day.
The Merkel coalition
Merkel became Germany’s first female chancellor in 2005 and has frequently been described as the most powerful woman in the world. So it’s perhaps no surprise that her party received higher-than-usual support from women.
In fact, during the Merkel years, a shift in support for the CDU was most striking among women.
In recent federal elections, the CDU has had the widest advantage with women of any political party. The last time Germany held a federal election, in 2017, the party won 29.8 percent of votes cast by women and 23.5 percent of those cast by men, a gender gap of 6.3 percentage points.
Merkel also helped the party do well among older voters generally, but especially among older women. Older female voters provided the strongest base of support for the CDU. Among women aged 70 and older at the 2017 election, 40 percent voted for the CDU, compared to the party’s overall result of 27 percent. Among the other parties that tend to do well among older voters is the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
Figures from the Federal Returning Officer, the national election authority, confirm that German elections are won or lost with older voters.
The majority of Germany’s electorate is over 50, and almost 23 million voters — or 38 percent of the electorate — are over 60. Looking at the breakdown by gender of those over 60, women make up a clear majority.
These older voters are also more likely to show up at the polls. In 2017, 60 to 69-year-olds had the highest turnout rate, with over 80 percent showing up; by contrast, the lowest turnout was among 18 to 29-year-olds.
No Merkel, no mobilization
Once clearly ahead in polls, the CDU/CSU alliance is now significantly behind the SPD. According to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, the CDU/CSU currently stands at 21 percent; the SPD is at 26 percent.
“What we see now is a clear lack of mobilization among the CDU voters of 2017, which has to do with the candidate,” said Peter Matuschek, chief political analyst at the polling firm Forsa, referring to Laschet.
In August, Forsa asked previous CDU voters who intend to defect from the party in this election what the reason is for their decision. Of those surveyed, 43 percent named Laschet; another 29 percent were generally critical of the party’s path in recent months.
That means the CDU is losing its advantage among key voting groups, including women. In all polls for which POLITICO was able to analyze voting intention by gender, the gender gap present under Merkel has effectively disappeared. In fact, in surveys conducted in August and September by pollsters YouGov and INSA, the party did better among men than women for the first time since the beginning of Merkel’s chancellorship.
For the CDU, the data points to a worrisome fact: Merkel, through her centrist pragmatism, stood outside her party, thereby decoupling herself from it, at least in voters’ minds. While this worked for Merkel, it’s not working for the CDU.
Even with Merkel gone, the voter focus on persona and leadership style remains. It’s the reason that the SPD chancellor candidate and current vice chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has endeavored to depict himself as the continuation of Merkel’s steady, pragmatic style.
It’s a strategy that’s clearly working.
“The way to win this election is to essentially present yourself as the heir to Merkel and to make few mistakes while doing it,” said Dirsus. “It’s quite ironic that the Social Democrat should be better at that than the man who leads Merkel’s party.”
Nette Nöstlinger contributed reporting.