Mar 232017
 

Eight new German polls

Over the last fortnight, eight new polls have been published: two by Insa, two by Forsa, and one apiece by Dimap, Emnid, GMS, and FGW. For GMS, it is only the second poll conducted since the beginning of this year (a third one was published early in January, with fieldwork partly carried out in late December). As usual, there is quite a bit of variation in the data (hence the pooling), although there is no such shocker as the (unweighted) FGW poll done in mid-February which put the SPD at 42 per cent, twice of what they had been polling in early January.

The SPD and the Christian Democrats are in a dead heat, but …?

Probably no “but” so far. Back in late January, the SPD’s fortunes began to rise rapidly thanks to their new candidate Martin Schulz (aka St Martin), and by early February, support for the two major parties had become statistically indistinguishable. For the last ten days or so, the model has put the CDU about a percentage point ahead of the SPD, but that does not mean a thing: the credible intervals are still more or less identical. The SPD’s rise and rise in the polls has stopped in March, but the Schulz effect is still very much a thing.

spd-union-2017-03-24.png

The Left and the AfD

Since January, the AfD has lost a bit of steam (i.e. about 2 points) in the polls, but it is still the strongest opposition party at just under 10 per cent. The model-based line in the graph suggests that over the last couple of weeks, the party has recovered a wee bit, but that movement is negligible (have a look at the scale), just a teensy-weensy wiggle well within a wide credible band. Similarly, the Left is basically where it was two (and four, and six) weeks ago at 7.5 per cent.

left-afd-2017-03-24.png

The Greens and the FDP

The Greens had a bad start into the campaign. Just when they had selected two Spitzenkandidaten from the more conservative wing of the party (signalling that they might enter a CDU/CSU/Green coalition), the SPD pulled a Schulz on them by choosing a leader who would attract leftist voters and would at least ponder the prospects of an SPD/Left/Green coalition. The Greens lost a couple of points in January and early February but have been perfectly stable since. Conversely, the FDP may or may not have won a point since February. Like with the AfD, the wiggling is not impressive, given the width of the credible intervals. But importantly, this interval has not touched the electoral threshold of five per cent during the last three months, though the threshold is never that far away.

greens-fdp-2017-03-24.png

Conclusion

The polls are noisy as ever, but the model, which tries to account for house effects and random errors, suggests that the noise is just that, and that so far there was no real movement in political support in March. This picture is at least plausible: Apart from the AfD, all parties have selected their respective Spitzenkandidaten by now, it’s still six months to go,  and there have been no major domestic events.

overall-estimates-2017-03-24.png

At current levels of support, the Bundestag would have two (relatively) major parties that could continue the Grand coalition, although it’s not quite clear which one would hold the chancellorship, and four almost identically-sized minor parties, commanding between six and ten per cent of the vote. In such a relatively fragmented parliament, the chances (in a purely statistical sense) for forming a SPD/Left/Green coalition are slim: Only in 15 per cent of all draws from the (simulated) joint distribution of support is there a sufficient red-red-green majority. At 12 per cent, the chances of a numerical majority for a “Jamaica” coalition (Christian Democrats, FDP, Greens) are even lower. In none of the the simulations is either a SPD/Greens or Christian Democrats/FDP coalition feasible. It would be Grand Coalition, or new elections, or minority cabinet rule (a first). But remember the mantra: It’s six months to go, we’re very much talking about political mood, not firm intentions here, and this is just a model that tries to average over many different noisy and potentially biased polls.

Mar 202017
 

With just six months to go until the 2017 Bundestag election, this is perhaps the ideal time to reflect on the rather remarkable 2013 election. Perhaps there is also a very fine line between Political Science and Contemporary History, and the German electoral studies community has a particular gift to step exactly on that line without ever quite crossing over? Either way, German Politics (the journal) published a fine Special Issue on the 2013 election in Germany. The articles focus on a number of highly specific research questions: Ben Christian employs the Rolling Cross Section-component of the GLES to study how voters learn to identify what would be the “correct” electoral choice for them over the course of the campaign. Martin Elff and Sigrid Roßteutscher show that the link between dealignment and party decline (of the SPD in particular) is more nuanced than previously thought. Marc Debus demonstrates that – female Chancellor or not – gender had little effect on voting for the Christian Democrats in recent Bundestag elections.

Katsunori Seki and Guy D. Whitten pit various economic voting models against each other. Robert Rohrschneider and Stephen Whitefield show that as far as mainstream parties are concernend, “Europe” is still largely a non-issue in German Politics, even in these troubled times. Sascha Huber looks at motivations for coalition voting to explain the decline of the FDP in the last weeks preceding the 2013 election. Rüdiger Schmitt-Beck dissects the AfD’s 2013/2014 electorate into two groups: euro-sceptics and xenophobes. Heiko Giebler and Bernhard Weßels demonstrate that good campaigns made voters remember local candidates. Finally, yours truly casts another long and dirty look at partisan dealignment, which has almost come to a halt in Germany. And since German Politics is a somewhat arcane journal, you may want to have a look at the nearly identical author’s (pre-publication) version.

Mar 152017
 

Almost exactly four years ago, the “Alternative für Deutschland” party (AfD) began its life as a moderately eurosceptic outfit that brought together right-wingers of various stripes. Even back in 2014, the party did not qualify as radical right-wing populist. Quite to the contrary: The leadership went to great lengths to present a “civic” front of professors, business persons, and concerned citizens. However, their 2015 de facto split was a critical juncture in the young party’s history. The part’s most prominent face, economist and former CDU member Bernd Lucke, and many of his supporters left the party.

The AfD’s central command is very active on Facebook, and so a quantitative analysis of their posts is a reasonable means for tracking their ideological trajectory. For a presentation I gave last week, I have updated and somewhat streamlined my 2015 analysis of their social media activities. I’m only looking at posts by the AfD on their own (federal) fan page. Over the last four years, the party has accumulated no less that 3482 of them. Their text is lightly normalised and stemmed, and I’m looking for substrings pertaining to four issues: Europe and the Euro, Greece, Islam/Muslims, and Migration/Refugees. Obviously, a post can refer to two or more of these issues, so the numbers may sum up to more than 100%. The result is this:

issues.png

It’s quite clear that in 2013 and early 2014 (think European elections), a large chunk of their posts made reference to the Euro, the EU, and so forth. In the first half of 2015, Greece (remember the long nights and that funny finance minister) and Euroscepticism were back on the agenda. But when the economic liberals left the AfD around June and the refugees emerged as a dominant issue in European politics later that year, Greece was forgotten. In 2016, the AfD was all about migrants, refugees, and Muslims. I really need to find the time to dig deeper into this.

Mar 102017
 

With just under seven months to go until the German federal election, I have recently begun once more to pool the pre-election polls from seven major survey firms. Since January, when the date for the election was set and the Spitzenkandidaten were selected, results from 35 polls with a median sample size of about 1900 have been published: nine apiece by Emnid and Forsa, five by Dimap, five by Insa, four by FGW, two by Allensbach, and a single one by GMS.

Easily the most exciting event in the (long) campaign so far has been the #Schulzzug: the mostly unexpected leak/announcement on January 24 that Sigmar Gabriel would be replaced as party leader and (presumptive) candidate by Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament. Support for the SPD in the polls had hovered at historically low levels of just over 20 per cent for months, but the Schulz candidacy re-energised party members and resulted in lots of (mostly positive) media coverage so far. Subsequently, support for the party leaped up in the polls, even overtaking support for the Christian Democrats in some of them.

But most movement in the polls is noise, and so we would like to know if the Schulz bounce is real. The data basically say: yes.

[spd-union-2017-03-10.png]

The figure shows that support for the SPD begins to rise a couple of days before Schulz’s candidacy was announced, but this is probably an artefact. The model assumes that true support normally changes very little from one day to the next, but these are unusual circumstances, and so the ascent was probably steeper than the graph suggests. At any rate, the estimated level of support for the SPD in February was somewhere between 30 and 35 per cent, whereas it was between 20 and 24 per cent early in January. The model’s priors may play a role here (though they should be quickly overwhelmed by the data), but it is obvious that there was a gap of at least 10 percentage points between the two major parties in January that has essentially closed now. Support for the CDU and the SPD is virtually indistinguishable, and the Christian Democrats are rightfully worried.

What this means for the election is a different question. Estimated levels of support for both parties have been essentially constant for the last four weeks or so. The SPD has unexpectedly closed the gap, but it has stopped gaining. The Christian Democrats are not doing much worse than at the same point in the cycle four years ago. And once voters learn more about Schulz (who is a known unknown in Germany), the Schulz effect may wear off.

Mar 102017
 

It’s that time of the electoral cycle again: With just under seven months to go until the federal election in September, I feel the urge to pool the German pre-election polls. I’ve burnt my fingers four years ago when I was pretty (though not 100%) sure that the FDP would clear the five per cent threshold (they failed for the first time in more than six decades), but hey – what better motivation to try it again?

Why bother with poll-pooling?

Lately (see Trump, Brexit), pre-election polls have been getting a bad rap. But there is good evidence that by and large, polls have not become worse in recent years. Polls, especially when taken long before the election, should not be understood as predictions, because people will change their mind on how to vote, or will not yet have made up their mind – in many cases, wild fluctuations in the polls will eventually lead to an equilibrium that could have been predicted many months in advance. Rather, polls reflect the current state of public opinion, which will be affected by campaign and real-world effects.

Per se, there is nothing wrong with wanting to track this development. The problem of horse race journalism/politics is largely a problem of over-interpreting the result of a single poll. A survey of 1000 likely voters that measures support for a single party at 40% would have a sampling error of +/- 3 percentage points if it was based on a simple random probability sample. In reality, polling firms rely on complicated multi-stage sampling frames, which will result in even larger sampling errors. Then there is systematic non-response: some groups a more difficult to contact than others. Polling firms therefore apply weighs, which may hopefully reduce the resulting bias but will further increase standard errors. And then there are house effects: Some quirk in their sampling frame or weighing scheme may cause polling firm A to consistently overreport support for party Z. So in general, if support for a party or candidate rises or drops by some three or four percentage points, this may create a flurry of comments and excitement. But more often than not, true support in the public may be absolutely stable or even move in the opposite direction.

Creating a poll of polls can alleviate these problems somewhat. By pooling information from many adjacent polls, more accurate estimates are possible. Moreover, house effects may cancel each other out. However, a poll of polls will not help with systematic bias that stems from social desirability. If voters are generally reluctant to voice support for a party that is perceived as extremist or otherwise unpopular, that will affect all polls in much the same way.

Moreover, poll-pooling raises a number of questions to which there are no obvious answers: How long should polls be retained in the pool over which one wants to average? How can we deal with the fact that there are sometimes long spells with no new polls, whereas at other times, several polls are published within a day or two? How do we factor in that a change in polling that is reflected across multiple companies is more likely to reflect a true shift in allegiances?

The method: Bayesian poll-pooling

Bayesian poll-pooling provides a principled solution to these (and other) issues. It was pioneered by Simon Jackman in his 2006 article on “Pooling the polls over an election campaign”. In Jackman’s model, true support for any given party P is latent and follows random walk: support for P today is identical to what it was yesterday, plus (or minus) some tiny random shock. The true level of support is only ever observed on election day, but polls provide a glimpse into the current state of affairs. Unfortunately, that glimpse is biased by house effects, but if one is willing to assume that house effects average out across pollsters, these can be estimated and subsequently factored into the estimates for the true state of support for any given day.

The Bayesian paradigma is particularly attractive here, because it is flexible and because it easily incorporates the idea that we use polls to continuously update our prior beliefs about the state of the political play. It’s also easy to derive other quantities of interest from the distribution of the main estimates, such as the probability that there is currently enough support for the FDP to enter parliament, and, conditional on this event, that a centre-right coalition would beat a leftist alliance.

In my previous misguided attempt to pool the German polls, I departed from Jackman’s model in two ways. First, I added a “drift” parameter to the random walk to account for any long term trends in party support. That was not such a stupid idea as such (I think), but it made the model to inflexible to pick up that voters were ditching the FDP in the last two weeks before the election (presumably CDU supporters who had nursed the idea of a strategic vote for the FDP). Secondly, whereas Jackman’s model has a normal distribution for each party, I fiddled with a multinomial distribution, because Germany has a multi-party system and because vote share must sum up to unity.

The idea of moving to a Dirichlet distribution crossed my mind, but I lacked the mathematical firepower/Bugs prowess to actually specify such a model. Thankfully, I came across this blog, whose author has just done what I had (vaguely) in mind. By the way, it also provides a much better overview of the idea of Bayesian poll aggregation. My own model is basically his latent primary voting intention model (minus the discontinuity).

The one thing I’m not 100% sure about is the “tightness” factor. Like Jackman (and everyone else), the author assumes that most movement in the polls is noise, and that true day-to-day changes are almost infinitesimally small. This is reflected in the tightness factor, which he arbitrarily sets to 50000 after looking at this data. Smaller numbers make for more wiggly lines and wider confidence intervals, because more of the variability in the data is attributed to true change. Unfortunately, this number does not translate to a readily interpretable quantity of interest (say a true day-to-day change of 0.5 per cent).

After playing with smaller and even larger values, I came up with a cunning plan and made “tightness” a parameter in the model. For the first six weeks of polling data, the estimate for tightness is about an order of magnitude lower in a range between 3500 and 10000. Whether it is a good idea to ask my poor little stock of data for yet another parameter estimate is anyone’s guess, and I will have to watch how this estimate changes, and whether I’m better of to fix it again.

The data

Data come from seven major polling companies: Allensbach, Emnid, Forsa, FGW, GMS, Infratest Dimap, and INSA. The surveys are commissioned by various major newspapers, magazines, and TV channels. As far as I know, Allensbach is the only company that does face-to-face interviews, and INSA is the only company that relies on an internet access panel. Everyone else is doing telephone interviews. The headline margins are compiled and republished by the incredibly useful wahlrecht.de website: http://www.wahlrecht.de/umfragen/index.htm, which I scrape with a little help from the rvest package.

Replication (Updated)

Feb 152017
 

Seven months before the election, what’s up with the Alternative für Deutschland?

I’ve kept repeating this since the Alternative für Deutschland’s ascendancy in the polls began in late 2015: the AfD’s electoral popularity depends on a) steering away from open right-wing extremism, which has frustrated previous attempts to establish a right-wing populist party in Germany, and b) presenting a united front. With the beginning of the (long) campaign, the party is not doing too well on both counts. Let’s have a look at seven of my favourite conflicts within the party.

Putsch in the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD)?

The AfD and Bruce Springsteen. You would have to ask @BDStanley what it means.

#1 Right-wing extremism in Saarland – not a problem, really

The Saarland (always with the article) is a small state in the West with an interesting history and a relatively lively right-wing scene. The AfD state party is so closely involved with said right-wing extremists that the Alternative’s national executive – not normally given to anti-fascist activism – voted to disband the state party back in March 2016. However, the national executive lost a legal battle with the state party leadership, and the state party could continue. The executive then asked the state party not to field any candidates in the upcoming 2017 federal election. The state party politely declined this request. Incidentally, the state party’s number three was caught on camera selling Nazi devotionalia in his shop.

#2 Anti-Semitism in Baden-Württemberg

Shortly after the March 2016 state election in Baden-Württemberg, it emerged that Wolfgang Gedeon, one of the freshly minted MPs for the Alternative für Deutschland is an anti-Semite and conspiracy theorist. Jörg Meuthen – party leader in Baden-Württemberg, head of the parliamentary party in the Baden-Württemberg state parliament and one of the party’s two national “speakers” – , who is usually typecast as one of the remaining economic liberal/socially conservative characters in the AfD, unsuccessfully tried to expel Gedeon from the parliamentary party. As a result, the parliamentary party split in two in July. Legal and political chaos ensued. Meuthen’s co-leader Frauke Petry arrived on the scene, allegedly trying to make peace, but most observers agreed that this intervention was part of the ongoing power struggle between Petry and Meuthen. Finally, after three months of strife, the two factions re-united under Meuthen’s leadership.

#3 Candidate selection in NRW

With roughly the same population as the Netherlands, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) is the most populous federal state in Germany. In German Politics, NRW and its politicians are heavy-weights. The state will go to the polls in May 2017, and the result will be read as a bellwether for the federal election September. The AfD state party is lead by Marcus Pretzell, one of the two remaining MEPs for the AfD. Pretzell is controversial within “his” party. In November, he and his inner circle were accused of using undue methods to orchestrate the selection of candidates for the upcoming state election. In January, the state’s returning officer decided that although there had been irregularities, the process was deemed legal so that he would provisionally accept the list of candidates. The final decision will be made in May. While it looks unlikely at the moment, in theory the party could be barred from taking part in the election.

#4 Litigation in Schleswig-Holstein

The northern state of Schleswig-Holstein is also going to the polls in May. Thomas Tomsen, the former (until May 2016) leader of the state party has tried to sue his successor, Jörg Nobis. Tomsen claims that scores of his supporters were not invited to the assembly that elected Nobis. In January, Tomsen lost a court case on formal grounds: The judges ruled that Tomsen has to go through the internal system of party courts before he can appeal to a regular, public court. And so the former and the present leader will spend at least a part of the election campaign in court(s). The lawyer for the current leadership has defended NPD politicians in the past and is himself a well-known right-winger.

#5 Factions. More factions

In the past, the “Patriotic Platform” has brought together the right-wingers amongst the right-wingers in the AfD. But apparently, the PP has become too pussy-footed by the standards of some of their leading lights. The blick nach rechts blog reports that some former members of the PP’s federal executive are setting up the “Free Patriotic Alternative”. Judean People’s Front vs People’s Front of Judea, anyone?

#6 Höcke

Speaking of the Patriotic Platform and right-wingers, Björn Höcke, the leader of the state party in Thuringia, is the most visible amongst the ultra-right within the party. In his speeches/performances, he borrows heavily from the ideas, vocabulary, and style of the Weimar Republic’s anti-democratic right. In the past, he came under fire when he claimed that “not each and every member of the [right-wing extremist] NPD was an extremist”. Then-party leader Bernd Lucke tried to expel Höcke, but failed. Colleague Andreas Kemper has made it his life’s ambition to demonstrate that Höcke has published racist dribble in an NPD party paper pseudonymously. He is probably right. Höcke also made waves (and came close to being kicked out of the party once more) when he gave speech at an extremist think tank where he referred to Africans as a “different species” which pursues “an expansive pro-creational strategy”.

His latest exploit was a speech in which he said that the Holocaust memorial in Berlin was shameful, and that Germany’s approach to its past was seriously misguided and hence required a complete turnaround. The speech was given on the 75th anniversary of the infamous “Wannsee Conference”, where the organisational groundwork for the Holocaust was laid. The national executive made a move to expel Höcke in January but in the end left it at a formal censure. Last Monday, after much toing and froing behind the scenes, a large majority voted to start a protracted process that could possibly, but not necessarily, end with Höcke’s departure from the party.

#7 The nationalist international

Pretzell is a member of the ENF group in the European Parliament. Although the AfD’s official policy is to keep their distance from other right-wing populist parties in Europe, Pretzell organised a (highly publicised) ENF meeting in the German city of Koblenz on January 21. Amongst the attendees were Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Matteo Salvini and (drumroll) Frauke Petry, who had not sought a consensus with other members of the executive. At least the German public perceived the conference as an AfD event. There were not too many happy faces seen on the executive board.

It’s not (just) about extremism. It is (also) about The Leader and her Lover vs The Rest

As a relatively young party, the AfD has many leaders and leaderlings, and since Lucke’s departure the public tends to perceive the party through the lenses of their respective personas (how is that for a mixed and convoluted metaphor?). Much of the ongoing conflict within the AfD is about ideology, or rather about the party’s general public image as “conservative-liberal”, “national-consersavtive”, right-wing populist or even right-wing extremist. But personalities, personal ambitions, and personal animosities are at least as important.

Petry was perceived as more radical than Lucke, yet representing something like a centrist position within the Lucke-less AfD. However, one important reason for ascendancy was that she seemed more willing to accept a modicum of collective leadership than Lucke – a perception that has now faded. Petry frequently tries to bypass the party structures. The party base, in turn, has denied her her wish to become the party’s sole “Spitzenkandidat” for the federal election.

Petry’s key ally is Pretzell, whom she married in December. Both are on record saying that refugees could be shot at the German border, which is not exactly the hallmark of a moderate. Pretzell was quick to blame the Berlin terror attack on refugees and Merkel, and Petry suggested that the word “völkisch” – the traditional self-description of German nationalists – should be seen as a positive term “again”. The last time this word had a positive connotation was during the Nazi era. Meuthen, who likes to give the impression that he is more liberal than Petry, failed to vet Gedeon before he was selected as a candidate. Meuthen also suggested that AfD MPs should not automatically vote against any proposal drafted by NPD in state parliaments, and voted against the motion to expel Höcke, whom he has supported on other occasions, too.

Four years after its inception, the AfD is still a very mixed bag of right-wingers, warring amongst each other for all sorts of reasons. And while I’m writing this, Der Tagesspiegel reports that not just his own people but also Alexander Gauland (another party heavy-weight and member of the national executive) and unspecified “supporters” are “urging” Höcke, the man under the gun, to run in the Bundestag election to challenge Petry. Höcke has previously ruled out any ambitions to leave Thuringia, but might now be tempted to stage a coup. I long to see how the politicking in the AfD will play out over the next seven months.

Jan 192017
 

Before Christmas, I had yet another chat with the journalist Yardena Schwartz, who covers Germany for various outlets in the US. Parts of our conversation re-surface in a piece she wrote for Politico on Germany’s Far Right:

She also published an article on how the Far Right tries to capitalise from the Berlin Christmas Market attack, again with a little bit of input from yours truly.

Jan 042017
 

The good folks over at the LSE (which, apart from running one of the most vibrant Political Science blogging sites on the planet also happens to host a university) have kindly asked me to look ahead at the likely outcome of the German Federal Election in September in general and the role of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in particular. I submitted my text early in December so that it could be published after Christmas. Following the terror attack on the Christmas market in Berlin, they offered me the opportunity to amend and slightly extend the text. I politely declined, because I thought that a horrific but fairly localised event such as this will not fundamentally affect the outcome of a still relatively distant election. I have been wrong before. Here is the link to the article on the EUROPP blog:

Dec 212016
 

I recently had a lengthy chat with Yardena Schwartz on the AfD’s significance for German politics, and their likely trajectory. One thing that came out of it is a CJR article on the (mis?)representation of the AfD and their voters in the German media. I don’t agree with everything she writes, but it is certainly an interesting read.

Nov 152016
 

ologit

This week, I had the opportunity to talk on the Nuffield Politics Seminar about my current project on citizens’s preferences on Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) and how they differ from what lawmakers decided. The feedback I got was amazing, though not always practical (“If you could go back in time and vary about 10 experimental conditions …”.

Here are the slides: