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.
Even the Washington Post has woken up to the fact that 25 years after the uprising in the GDR, Germany stubbornly remains divided economically, politically, and socially. In the great scheme of things, this may matter less than you might think: In Western Europe alone, the UK, Spain, Belgium, or Switzerland – countries that have been around as nation states for much longer than Germany’s current iteration – are similarly diverse.
But it keeps the German Politics crowd busy enough. I’m currently working on a piece that looks at the latest federal election in comparative (east vs west) perspective – something that I have done previously for the 1998, 2002, and 2009 elections (2005 was someone else’s turn). The biggest difference is of course in the results of the Left party, which, compared to the West German districts, is about four times as successful in the East (this figure is down from a 20:1 rate in the 1990s). But here is another Bundestagswahl fun fact: The Liberals – not longer represented in the federal parliament for the first time since 1949, because their national result was just below the five per cent electoral threshold – barely scraped beyond this threshold in the old West, where they garnered 5.1 per cent of the valid votes. Based on the western results, the former Christian Democrats/Liberal coalition could have continued. Once more, the Easterners brought about political change.
The German media have been particularly excitable this week. They kicked off with floating the idea that there was momentum in the polls (“SPD up by almost two points!”) and concluded with covering the infamous magazine cover portraying Peer Steinbrück flaunting his finger. Moreover, the idea that the eurosceptic AfD might enter parliament has gained some traction. Of course, there is zero new evidence, but some days ago a leading pollster said that he could not rule out a result north of five per cent (the threshold).
Given that they have been polling between three and four per cent and considering the margin of error, that is a very sensible statement. By this morning, it had morphed into “Pollsters Expect that AfD will force Grand Coalition”. My totally scientifically objective hybrid human-computer qualitative analysis of the press (i.e. me browsing the internet) shows that the more pro-business papers are pushing that story – presumably because the AfD’s leader, a professor of macro economics, has the ear of a few editors.
The party does have, however, an unusually strong social media presence. If that is indicative of anything is anyone’s guess.
The most recent iteration includes three new polls from week 36 (the week after the debate) as well as two from this week, and they are as noisy as ever. Ratings for the CDU are particularly variable (between 39 and 44 per cent), which is to be expected since the sampling error is bigger for parties that are close to 50 per cent. But according to model, this is mostly noise, and the party is still solidly somewhere in the area of 40 per cent (or slightly more).
Estimates/Predictions for the Major German Parties (2013). Click for larger image
The SPD’s support has indeed risen a bit over the last couple of weeks (all polls before finger-gate). But in the great scheme of things, that does not seem to matter much: The party is still stuck well under 30 per cent. Looking on the bright side, they will probably do better than the abysmal 23 per cent they got in 2009.
The decline of the Greens seems to be levelling out. Their recent drop in popularity not withstanding, the model predicts that the party will come third at about ten percent.
Support for the Left is basically constant and stable, while the FDP continues to inch upward. According to the model, Merkel’s preferred coalition partner will almost certainly make it into parliament.
Estimates/Predictions for the Smaller German Parties (2013). Click for larger image
The estimated probability of a new mandate for the current coalition is now 89 per cent. If tactical voting is taken into account, that number goes up to 94 per cent. The probability of a red-green majority is constant at virtually zero per cent. The SPD has repeatedly ruled out that they would accept any arrangement involving the Left. In line with previous posts, I assume that there is a 10 per cent chance that they nonetheless consider the unspeakable. Plugging this into the calculation, the probability of Merkel winning a third term is estimated at 98.9/99.4 per cent (with/without tactical voting for the FDP).
Over the next six days, the CDU’s main problem will be the complacency of their voters: With the race virtually run, they might simply be too lazy to turn out to vote. The SPD, on the other hand, seems to be making very small noises that imply that they might be interested in entering another Not-So-Grand Coalition. And the FDP will make a desperate appeal to their supporters (whom?) while trying to convince at least some CDU voters that yellow-blue is the new black.
Much will depend on the outcome of today’s state election in Bavaria: While Bavaria is basically representative for, well, Bavaria, politicians, journalists and voters will inevitably take it as a bellwether for the big one. Let’s wait and see then, shall we?
In 335 hours, the campaign will be history, and it does not look good for the opposition parties. Last Sundays’ televised debate between Merkel and Steinbrück – aka the Duel – was widely considered a very civilised draw. Merkel is not good at debating. Her answers were long-winded and evasive, but she managed to score a few points. Her gaffe-prone and sometimes foul-mouthed challenger carefully tried to avoid digging himself into yet another hole but consequentially lacked a bit of his usual zest.
The SPD claims that Steinbrück’s ratings amongst the undecided raters have improved, but by and large, the debate was clearly not a game-changer. Similarly, Syria remains a non-issue, as basically everyone who is anyone says that we don’t want to be involved in what ever military action the US might stumble into.
Predictions/Estimates for the Major German Parties, Week 36 (2013)
This round brings five new polls: two from week 35 that were conducted just before the debate, and three for which respondents were interviewed from Monday till Wednesday. After factoring them in, the model still predicts essentially no change for the two major parties. Both have been stable in the range of 41 per cent (CDU/CSU) and 25 per cent (SPD) for a while now and are not expected to move over the next two weeks.
One important qualification applies, however: The model assumes a constant trend since January as well as constant variance (on the latent scale). Campaign/reality-induced shocks to the parties’ latent support may well be bigger than what is implied by these two neat normal distributions. But I don’t really believe it.
Predictions/Estimates for the Smaller German Parties, Week 36 (2013)
Findings for the smaller parties are more interesting. Both the FDP and the Left continue their respective slow ascent. The Left is safely above the electoral threshold, and it seems highly likely that the FDP could enter parliament under their own steam. If tactical voting by CDU supporters is factored in, it is virtually guaranteed that there will be an FDP delegation in the 18th Bundestag.
The probability of a viable majority for the current coalition is now 84 per cent (basically unchanged from 85 per cent last week). If tactical voting is taken into account, the coalition looks almost unbeatable at 97 per cent (up from 94). The probability of a red-green majority is constant at zero per cent. The probability of a (politically unviable) red-red-green majority is estimated at 16/3 per cent (with/without tactical voting for the FDP).
In line with previous posts, I assume that the SPD would in this case favour a Grand Coalition with a probability of 90 per cent. That brings the probability of a third term for Merkel (aka the Merkel-O-Meter) to a new high of 98.4/99.7 per cent. As always, these figures should be taken with a giant pinch of salt, but it seems safe to assume that a change in government (let alone a change of the CEO) is really very unlikely.
Are the Greens Plummeting?
In short: yes, but … The three polls from week 36 see the Greens at 9, 10, and 11 per cent respectively. The model says that 11 is realistic but points to a slump of two per cent or so over the last month. Looking back, it would also seem that ratings of 15 per cent and more were hardly ever realistic. The party is going from sky-high figures to a share that is still very good. If the model is right, it is also highly likely that the Greens will be the strongest of the three smaller parties.
Jürgen Trittin’s recent claim that the party would bounce back just before the election, however, seems over-optimistic. And they would have to bounce a very long way to make a red-green government viable.
Any Other Parties?
A year ago, the Pirates looked set to enter parliament, and in March, the newly founded eurosceptic AfD began to make waves. The model lumps these and all smaller parties together in a single “other” category, since none of them has polled five per cent or more over the last eight months.
Over the last week, the AfD has repeatedly claimed that their true level of support was in the double digits. They capped off their PR campaign by offering Angela Merkel coalition talks. How do you spell delusional?
We all know that extremist parties are often underestimated as a result of social desirability effects. But hardly anyone has so far claimed that the AfD is extremist. And a gap of at least six percentage points would require a level of stigma that makes you wonder how the AfD leaders see themselves.
Just for the fun of it, I have amalgamated 40 per cent of the simulated “other” votes into support for a single party, which seems generous (there are about 30 other parties, most of them tiny). The chance of such a party to overcome the electoral hurdle is 0.5 per cent. However, if one of the smaller parties did indeed enter parliament, that would almost certainly force a Grand Coalition.
My model is likely to be misspecified, plus there could be a lot of last-minute movement. Stay tuned to see me fail when I come back next week with new evidence.
Just over five weeks before the Bundestag election, there is much merriment about the current state of play. Support for the Liberals has been consistently below the electoral threshold of five per cent for months, which implies that Merkel’s coalition would not be able to continue after September. Consequently, everyone is very excited about a more recent series of polls, which put the party at exactly five per cent. But even with n=2000, an exact confidence interval would range from 4 to 6 per cent. Add multistage sampling, house effects, and the fact that people do not necessarily know how they will vote in September, and you end up with a lot of noise.
Support for the Two Major German Parties in 2013
How much noise exactly? The good folks at wahlrecht.de publish marginal distributions for six major companies that regularly conduct random polls. I wrote a little program to collects everything published since January (the exact election date was officially determined on February 8 but was negotiated between the parties in January). Here are the results (click to enlarge).
Most polls are in the field for two to seven days, so I anchored them at their midpoints. My current data set spans 31 weeks, with just under 4 polls conducted each week.
Polling the German Election Polls
It’s obvious that there is a lot of variation in these 120 data points, making claims that this party has declined while another one surges rather dubious (though they still make excellent headlines). Poll aggregation is one possible and increasingly way out of this conundrum, so I decided to get my hands dirty, install (r)jags and bite the Bayesian bullet (something I have meant to do for years).
Support for three of the Smaller German Parties (2013)
My model is rather simplistic (I’ll post the code once it has stabilised). I assume that reported voting intentions are distributed multinomial, and that they depend on a) latent party support and b) house effects. I further make the rather heroic assumption that house effects are random with a mean of zero. Latent party support, on the other hand, follows a random walk, possibly with a drift: This week’s support is last week’s support plus some random change due to political events, plus some constant that accounts for steady up- or downward trends.
The Bayesian framework seems particularly appropriate here as it is technically and conceptually easy to come up with predictions for September 22, but I refrain from incorporating any prior beliefs and put vague distributions on all parameters. As far as I can tell (and that does not mean a lot), the model seems to converge without problems.
Estimated and Predicted Support for Major German Parties (2013)
Somewhat surprisingly,the 95 per cent credibility interval (the shaded area around the trend line) is rather narrow for both the CDU and the SPD, implying that we can learn a lot from pooling many noisy polls. Support for Merkel’s Christian democrats was largely stable over the last seven months at about 42 per cent. This would make them the strongest party by far, although they are far away from the lofty 50 per cent they reached in some polls in April and June. According to the model, support for the Socialdemocrats is similarly stable, though at a much lower level of 26 per cent.
The predictions (to the right of the vertical line that marks the beginning of the last week included in the model) are less precise than the estimates, and become more vague as they extend towards election day, but it seems almost certain that the CDU will be the strongest party in the new parliament by a fair margin.
Estimated and Predicted Support for Smaller Parties in Germany (2013)
The model is also very confident about levels of support for the smaller parties. Green support peaked in March, but current and predicted levels are still above 12 per cent, which would be an improvement on the 2009 result. But since the SPD is so weak, the probability of a “Red-Green” majority in the next Bundestag is estimated to be (much) less than one per cent.
Support for the Left is estimated at about seven per cent, well above the threshold (the dashed line), but also well below their very strong result in 2009.
Finally, the FDP has shown an upward trend over the last 10 weeks or so and is projected to cross the threshold just in time for the election. The model estimates the probability of the FDP returning to parliament at 67 per cent.
Predicting the Inevitable
In reality, a sufficient number of potentially CDU voters might support the FDP for tactical reasons, pushing up that number towards certainty. But the coalition could come to an end even if that manoeuvre succeeds: The odds that the coalition garners more votes than the three left parties together are only slightly better than even at 58 per cent.
A “Red-Red-Green” coalition (or rather a Red-Green government tolerated by the Left), however, seems politically infeasible, suggesting a return to a Great Coalition lead by Angela M. with a subjective probability of at least 90 per cent.
If (if!) I take these estimates seriously for just one moment, that means that probability of Ms Merkel retaining her office is roughly 96 per cent. Let’s see how the next batch of polls plays havoc with this figure, shall we?