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No country for neophytes: Angela Merkel will win Germany again

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At a time in our history when voters in the United States and France have turned to untested newcomers like Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron, German citizens are poised to stick with tried and tested leadership at the top of government when they head to the polls in national elections next month.

It is all but certain that Christian Democrat Angela Merkel, who has served as German chancellor since 2005, will be reelected to a fourth term. The only wrinkle of change may be the choice of junior partner in her government alongside the Christian Democrats. Coalitions, it must be remembered, are standard in German politics. But whatever the makeup of the next German government, it will be Merkel’s handiwork.

For the last four years, this chancellor has governed in a coalition with the second-largest party, the left-of-center Social Democrats. It is a no-brainer that such a coalition would sustain Merkel for another term. But there will be other options involving smaller parties, which typically garner less than 10 percent of the vote. In this regard, Merkel faces a veritable embarrassment of riches. The most appealing partner would be the centrist Free Democrats, with whom she governed in her second term from 2009 to 2013.

{mosads}The chances that Merkel’s party, together with the Free Democrats, will win a majority of seats in the September election, according to our forecast, are 92 percent. Likewise, the chances that she could do so with the left-of-center Greens are 86 percent. These forecasts come from a prediction formula called the “Chancellor Model” that we have used with much success in the last four national elections in Germany.


As the name says, the popularity of the chancellor is the key predictor. Merkel heads into the September election with an enormous popularity. Her policy of admitting more than a million refugees from the war-torn and ISIS-infected Middle East, along with a spate of terrorist attacks in Germany, has not made her unpopular. The Trump-like anti-immigrant, anti-European Union party known as Alternative for Germany, has made little headway. And the chancellor candidate of the Social Democrats, Martin Schulz, is no Trump, although he sounded like him once in jest, when he promised “to make Europe great again.”

In the head-to-head competition Merkel leads Schulz by a 2-1 margin in current polls. While Schulz enjoyed a lead earlier this year following the buzz over his nomination, the glow quickly fizzled. Merkel’s lead looks secure as she heads into the final stretch of the campaign. Granted, Germans cannot vote directly for chancellor, but the ratings of the candidates for that job in polls two months before Election Day have proved highly predictive for the outcome of the national legislature, or Bundestag, elections. The party with the more appealing chancellor nominee is heavily favored to win that election.

In addition to chancellor popularity, our formula relies on long-term partisanship as a predictor. This, too, favors Merkel’s party and any party combinations she may choose. Taking the vote over the last three national elections, the Christian Democrats have averaged 37 percent compared with 28 percent for the Social Democrats. This puts Merkel’s party in striking distance of a majority of seats with either the Free Democrats or the Greens, who averaged close to ten percent each. Add Merkel’s big lead in chancellor popularity and the odds are heavily in her favor to command a majority with either of those two partners.

At the same time, our third and final predictor raises a caution flag. It covers the fatigue factor. With Merkel in office for three terms by now, we would predict a lessening of electoral support for her party. In U.S. presidential elections, “time for a change” has a powerful appeal after a party has occupied the White House for just two terms as we saw with Trump’s victory last year. While German voters seem to have more patience, their support for parties in office does wane the longer they hold office. That being said, whatever fatigue is setting in with the Christian Democrats in office after three terms is clearly overcome by Merkel’s personal popularity. In any event, there is no sign that Germans are suffering from “Merkel fatigue.”

For the record, our prediction formula of combining chancellor popularity, long-term partisanship and the fatigue factor, has proved highly accurate for the 17 German elections going back to 1953, whether it is about the vote of the parties in government or the next chancellor. For the last four elections, we issued forecasts several months ahead of time. Our debut was a bullseye in the reelection of the red-green government of the Social Democrats and Greens in 2002, when polls and pundits predicted its defeat. Our forecast got the vote of that coalition right to the decimal — 47.1 percent — something no poll or other prediction was able to achieve. This is a once-in-a-lifetime shot, of course, impossible to repeat.

One of the wild cards in predicting German elections is the 5 percent cutoff. A party needs to win at least that much of the vote to obtain seats in the Bundestag. In the 2013 election the Free Democrats missed it by the tiny margin of two-tenth of a percentage point. With no allowance for rounding, the party ended up with zero seats and Merkel lost her junior partner in government. Another miss like this in the upcoming election would kill off the prospect of this coalition, leaving Merkel to ponder forming a novel coalition with the Greens or simply staying with the Social Democrats. One way or the other, Merkel will be in charge of the next German government with little or no change.

Helmut Norpoth is a professor of political science at Stony Brook University. He developed the “Primary Model,” a statistical model he uses to predict the results of United States presidential elections based on data going back to 1912. He accurately predicted the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in March 2016.

Thomas Gschwend is a professor of political science at the University of Mannheim in Germany. He is coauthor of “Multi-Level Electoral Politics,” the first systematic analysis of electoral politics at three different levels across multiple countries, and has been published widely on topics of elections and public opinion.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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