TV Duel Merkel vs Steinbrück: Overall impression

Read few comment and also some polls  and here after the debate.

Eric Langenbacher, Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Government , Georgetown University

I thought that overall the debate was a basically a draw, but I would give Merkel a slight edge. Steinbrueck seemed nervous and choppy at first, although he did improve considerably by halftime and let some of his wit come through. For me, his strongest point (also reiterated during his closing statement) had to do with the banks being largely responsible for the Euro crisis and that regulating them is a necessity. He also was strong defending privacy rights in the context of the NSA affair. I thought his body language was often poor and it seemed that he was scowling a lot. But, he definitely had the more difficult task–fighting against a popular incumbent with a good record–and he performed well enough.

Merkel indeed seemed “presidential” as many noted. I thought she got the two best lines of the night when she responded to Steinbrueck’s criticisms of the government’s policy towards Greece and later, when discussing various coalition options, she said that the first consideration is what’s best for Germany and that party/personal motivations have to be de-emphasized. She also masterfully reminded the viewers that Steinbrueck and the SPD, especially during their time in the Grand Coalition, bear co-responsbility for today’s policies. Her closing statement was brilliant: ” ‘you know me.’ My time as chancellor has been good for Germany. You can trust me, so let’s continue.” That said, she wasn’t always consistent and some of her reactions were off-putting–her “ice cold smile” for instance. Her statement about the current government being the most successful ever was a bit much and probably sounded arrogant. She has to be careful that she does not appear to be taking German voters for granted.

Finally, I thought the format and moderation left something to be desired. Four journalists were too many and it often seemed like they were competing with each other to score points. The comedian Stefan Raab made too much of a spectacle of himself.

In sum, it was a good enough debate–of course not as riveting as U.S. presidential debates. Most of the big issues–tax policy, Euro crisis, Syria, NSA affair–were discussed. I don’t think this will change the election’s dynamics one way or another, but at the least, neither candidate messed up.

Christian SchweigerLecturer in Government, Department of Politics, Durham University

The debate was very fact based and avoided any personal attacks. Both candidates had their weak and strong moments but viewers rated Steinbrueck’s explanations of facts higher than Merkel’s. Merkel was particularly uncomfortable when she was challenged on the NSA spy scandal, Steinbrueck’s weakest moment was when he allowed the moderators to press him on the pensions of public servants which he vowed to bring down to the level of public pensions. Merkel picked this up and warned public officials that the SPD may want to cut their pensions. Both candidates clashed most harshly over the Eurozone crisis, where Steinbrueck attacked Merkel for her austerity course and Merkel herself reminded Steinbrueck that his party had supported all rescue packages for Greece.

I would be very careful to predict the potential impact of the debate on the election result. In the past there were occasions when the TV debate turned out as decisive, for example in 2002 when CSU challenger Edmund Stoiber was way ahead in the opinion polls and then lost the election after a weak performance in the debate with Schroeder and also in 2005 when Schroeder lagged behind Merkel and clearly won the debate and then almost managed to get another mandate for his red-green coalition. As Steinbrueck’s personal ratings in comparison with Merkel and the polling figures for the SPD have so far been rather weak I would say that the debate is likely to have some positive impact on the SPD’s rating. This is particularly because of the good impression Steinbrueck seems to have made on undecided voters and people who may have thought about abstaining. Pollster have recently indicated that the biggest chance for the SPD to turn things round against Merkel would be to mobilise undecided voters. To what extent today’s debate will boost the SPD’s polling figures remains to be seen over the next week or so.

Ed TurnerLecturer in Politics and International Relations, Aston University

This debate – distinctly earnest in tone, even with the affable comedian Stefan Raab amongst the presenters – is unlikely to be a game-changer in the German election campaign. Peer Steinbrück appeared to be the overall winner on most analyses (although interesting there was a gender gap in responses, with women far more likely to favour Chancellor Merkel), and should, at least, have bolstered the SPD’s support – currently around 25% in the polls. His answers were precise, and to the point, throwing up few surprises and giving a straightforward quality. By contrast, Angela Merkel spoke at greater length, but at times appeared to talk around issues, rather than get to the nub of them. Still, she appeared calm, and relatively assured.

On substantive issues, Steinbrück was perhaps more robust in his arguments for a greater emphasis on growth in Greece, Portugal and other EU nations which are struggling than I might have expected; Angela Merkel’s answers on the NSA affair, where US surveillance of German communications traffic is widely held to be unacceptable, was a weak point. Steinbrück might have appeared to set unwelcome hares running on the relative rise in public sector for “Beamte” (a particular category of civil servants) compared to other workers, when he argued they should be fairly linked.

This election remains open in one, decisive respect: will the CDU/CSU and FDP, together, command an overall parliamentary majority – at the moment, that hangs in the balance. If not, alternative coalition options (grand coalition between CDU/CSU and SPD, or a CDU/CSU – Green coalition) will prove challenging to construct. A further grand coalition is near-universally held to be a disaster for the SPD (and is rejected by Steinbrück) while the CDU/CSU – Green coalition would prove challenging for many green activists, as well as the conservative Bavarian CSU.

Sebastian BukowWissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Forschungsinformation und Qualitätsicherung

First, about the impact of the duel: I think, and polls confirm this, there won’t be a large impact on the final electoral outcome at all. The duel was too early for that and neither Steinbrück nor Merkel lost the duel. None of them made a real mistake that would last for the next weeks and due to that the impact will remain on a low level. Who supported one candidate before should be confirmed in his decision and vice versa.

But nevertheless there might be a minor impact. Even if there was no clear winner (and in fact the polls are different in this point, one says Merkel one, the other says Steinbrück did, due to different measurements), one point might be interesting: Steinbrück did win yet undecided voters, much more than assumed before. That won’t last till the election but it might help the SPD campaign within the next days, if they manage to use this (surprisingly) success for mobilizing their party on the ground for further grassroots-campaigning. Second, Merkel was not that cool as she normally is, she made minor mistakes. But her weakness on intra-coalition aspects (esp. the question of paying for highway usage and the conflict with the CSU) and on surveillance issues (NSA etc.) was clear and might be used by SPD an FDP / Greens in the next days. But of course Steinbrück made mistakes as well, e.g. his not really precise argument about state pensions. This might be used by Merkel (as she already did during the duel) to win the quite important state employees.

But to sum it up: Steinbrück was better than many said in before and due to that he can be seen as the winner. But Merkel did not really lost anyway, she still profits from her personality and that the public likes her much more than Steinbrück. Due to that the impact will be quite low…

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