Uphill Battle Merkel Challenger Schulz Hopes Debate Will Turn the Tide

Martin Schulz, the Social Democratic candidate for chancellor, faces a steep uphill battle if he wants to unseat Angela Merkel. He is hoping that next weekend's debate might breathe new life into his campaign. And he may not be wrong.

SPD chancellor candidate Martin Schulz.
DPA

SPD chancellor candidate Martin Schulz.

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It might sound like a joke, but Chancellor Angela Merkel's challenger believes that the campaign momentum currently favors him. Since last Monday, Martin Schulz has been traveling from town center to town center in Germany and the enthusiasm he has encountered is not completely consistent with the public opinion polls. For months, those polls have been showing Schulz's Social Democrats well behind Merkel's conservatives. But because of the excitement he has experienced on the stump, and because 50 percent of German voters have supposedly still not made up their minds, Schulz believes that the race isn't over yet.

That could just be the standard delusion to which many underdog candidates fall prey. But attendance at Schulz's rallies is indeed impressive. Last Wednesday, 3,000 people showed up in Göttingen to hear him speak, many more than have attended SPD rallies in recent campaigns. A similar number turned up in Bremen and Trier. Curiosity about Schulz, who began the year in a virtual tie with Merkel in public opinion surveys, appears not to have evaporated.

SPD strategists, however, believe that the televised debate on Sept. 3 offers the best opportunity to make up significant ground in the campaign. It is the most important single event in this campaign and the only time voters will be able to make a direct comparison between their chancellor and her challenger. Around 15 million people are expected to tune in.

Whereas the debate offers Schulz what is likely to be his last opportunity to inject the kind of fire into his campaign that has thus far been missing, Merkel is inclined to see the event more for the risks that it potentially poses. Her preference, in fact, would have been to skip the debate entirely -- so it seems, at least, from her team's take-it-or-leave-it approach in negotiating the details of the debate with the broadcasters that will televise the event.

Schulz has been focusing on the debate for weeks, having told his team early on that he wants to be extremely well-prepared for the clash, which will take place in Berlin. He is hoping to be able to finally pin Merkel down and his team believes that the debate format will enable him to do so, with the chancellor having fewer opportunities than normal to evade him.

His preparation is focused on both the issues likely to be covered as well as the debate style he hopes to adopt. Schulz has asked his team to determine which issues are best suited to highlighting the differences between him and the chancellor. In the campaign thus far, he has proven unable to accentuate those contrasts. The SPD believes that issues such as arms exports, education policy and pensions provide the greatest opportunities, particularly since the television-viewing audience typically includes many elderly voters.

Much Less Experience

To ensure that he is optimally prepared for the evening, Schulz hired the Austrian media coach Markus Peichl just over six weeks ago. The 59-year-old journalist is well-known in the SPD, having coached now-German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier ahead of his debate with the chancellor during the 2009 campaign. Having enjoyed a long and successful career as a television journalist, Peichl knows what works on the small screen and what doesn't -- and Schulz's team hopes that he can help turn the candidate's fortunes around.

With the lion's share of his political career thus far spent in the European Parliament, Schulz has far less experience with German television than Merkel does. Over the years, his team in Brussels tried to improve Schulz's television persona, but it was far from a priority. Following fatigued appearances on German breakfast television, his team would watch recorded footage and give him tips for improvement -- when he balled his fists too often, for example, they would warn him not to do so. "One of his problems was always his pistol finger," says one adviser who worked with him in Brussels. He would hold his pointer-finger straight up in the air with his thumb sticking out. "It made him look aggressive. Ultimately, we were able to get him to stop doing it."

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To prepare for the debate with the chancellor, he and his team have been spending a lot of time enacting potential question-answer scenarios. If Merkel says X, how will you respond? If the moderators ask Y, what will you say?

Sources within Schulz's team say they hope the debate will also mark a strategic shift. Thus far, the campaign has focused on mobilizing SPD voters, who have been disappointed recently by poor showings in state elections and disastrous survey numbers. After the debate, though, Schulz intends to increase his focus on undecided voters who have traditionally supported the Green Party or Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU).

In preparing for the debate, Schulz has also found himself confronted with the same question that Merkel's previous opponents have had to answer: How aggressive can he be? Schulz's team believes there are plenty of openings for going on the attack: Merkel's about-faces on both the refugee issue and on gay marriage, her ongoing fued with the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to her CDU, and her foot-dragging in the scandal surrounding Volkswagen's manipulation of emissions values for its diesel vehicles.

Little Leeway

Given her substantial lead in the polls, Merkel knows that she has much more to lose than her rival. And consistent with her political style, she hopes to minimize the risks to the degree possible. Indeed, Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert has done all he can in the negotiations with the broadcasters to ensure that there will be little leeway for unpredictability.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the campaign trail.
DPA

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the campaign trail.

The broadcasters sent out their invitations to the chancellor and her challenger just after Easter, with the original hope being that one debate would be hosted by public broadcasters ARD and ZDF and a second by private stations Sat.1 and RTL. Schulz's SPD was in favor of two debates, but the Chancellery quickly said that Merkel would only participate in one. But the editors-in-chief of the four stations didn't give up their hopes that changes could be made to the traditional format. Having studied debates in other countries, broadcasters hoped to have a less rigid format than in previous years -- a setup like in France, for example, with fewer moderators.

Merkel's refusal to consider a second debate led to a plan to divide the debate into two halves, with a pair of journalists asking questions in the first half and a second pair responsible for the second half. There had also been talk of conducting the debate before a studio audience for the first time, as is normal in the United States, the motherland of televised debates.

But it quickly became clear in the very first meeting with representatives from the two campaigns that an audience would not be approved. Merkel's media advisor Eva Christiansen and her spokesman Steffen Seibert categorically rejected the idea. The three preparatory meetings between Merkel's team and the broadcasters lasted up to two hours each, but little progress was made. Broadcaster representatives were angered by the fact that Merkel's spokesman led the negotiations for the Chancellery instead of a senior party representative -- even though Seibert had done so in past campaigns as well -- while Merkel's team made it clear that the chancellor would not accept any format changes, threatening to refuse to participate otherwise. Indeed, the negotiations once again highlighted Merkel's longtime media strategy: the chancellor generally only makes televised appearances if they can be controlled and guided.

The television executives were furious with Merkel's negotiating team and some of them were close to calling the whole thing off. In the end, though, say sources familiar with the negotiations, they "left their clenched fists in their pockets." Those involved felt that Seibert was being brusque and arrogant and the broadcasters only relented with deep reservations, sources say. "It was a do or die situation."

Former ZDF editor-in-chief Nikolaus Brender is willing to express openly what others only want to say off the record: "The agreement was the result of blackmail on the part of the Chancellery. The term for such agreements is 'improper.'" He says the Merkel team's intentions were clear. "The Chancellery was demanding a corset for the chancellor so she doesn't have to move. And also one for Schulz, so that he isn't able to move. Brender's verdict is harsh: "As a television format, it is a monstrosity."

Tight Corset

Recently, Merkel has preferred to hold interviews with friendly YouTube stars or with voters themselves. "That isn't the kind of thing she finds challenging. She is the master of vagueness -- such formats pose no risks for her," Brender says. Merkel, he continues, is sleep-walking through the campaign. A televised debate that creates sparks would just get in the way.

The chancellor is familiar with that kind of criticism, but she doesn't care. Despite the tight corset they have imposed on the debate, her team assumes that Schulz will be the one to benefit from the event -- for the simple reason that it will be the first opportunity for voters to see Merkel and her challenger on the same level. That, at least, is what happened four years ago, with Merkel's SPD challenger Peer Steinbrück receiving a small 2-3 percentage point bump following the debate -- even though he was anything but the clear victor.

In her campaign appearances and interviews thus far, Merkel has refused to even mention Schulz's name, almost as though she had no challenger at all. She will, however, be unable to follow that same strategy with him sitting across from her in the debate studio. That is another reason why Merkel refused to consider a second debate.

Despite Schulz's relative inexperience in German politics, Merkel's team does not see him as an easy opponent. He is rhetorically adept and does not come across as arrogant, the way Steinbrück did. His weakness, the chancellor's team believes, lies in the fact that he isn't as knowledgeable on many issues as Merkel is. They believe that any result that doesn't directly hurt her candidacy will be satisfactory -- even if Schulz does receive a modest bump in the polls. The most important thing, they say, is that the SPD doesn't receive any lasting benefits from the debate.

The Last Word

As she has always done, Merkel is relying -- apparently exclusively -- on her confidante Eva Christiansen for debate preparation. The two have been studying the 2014 televised debate between Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker ahead of the European elections that year in an effort to become more familiar with how Schulz reacts and with his reflexive responses so that Merkel is ready for them. That, after all, is the art of the televised debate: preparing for everything so that you can maintain control while at the same time coming across as spontaneous and authentic.

Chancellor Angela Merkel debating then-SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück in 2013
AP

Chancellor Angela Merkel debating then-SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück in 2013

Even after 12 years in office, Merkel still has difficulties with televised debates. Prior to her first debate with Gerhard Schröder back in 2005, her coach, a former anchor for public broadcaster ZDF, was primarily concerned with teaching her the appropriate body language - with moderate success. Four years later, she was faced with a rather unchallenging opponent. Steinmeier, who was running for the SPD at the time, was extremely similar to the chancellor, both on the issues and in temperament. The press was unified in its verdict that the debate was more boring than it was informative.

The 2013 debate against Steinbrück seemed more challenging, particularly because her opponent was much more lively and quick witted. Steinbrück saw the debate as the apex of the campaign, but also as a curious show. During the debate, he says, he felt like he was "in a fishbowl." "Your outfit, hair, facial expressions: It all matters. It is a peculiar situation. Everything is live and you can't correct anything." Ahead of that year's debate, Steinbrück prepared in a rented studio in Berlin. An external consultant who coaches executives and politicians for public appearances taught him that only a third of the viewing audience pays close attention to what is said while body language is decisive for the other two-thirds. In response, Steinbrück concentrated on keeping the corners of his mouth in a neutral position so as to avoid appearing uptight or upset.

The situation he faced in 2013 was similar to the one in which Schulz finds himself today. He was behind in the polls and the debate was seen as his last chance to make up ground. The chancellor, Steinbrück says today, is like a bar of soap that is constantly slipping out of your hands. Merkel, he says, "has the amazing ability to defuse controversial issues" by simply making them her own. "I can understand that from a political standpoint, but it is disastrous on the level of democratic theory. She avoids direct comparison, yet campaigns live from the competition between ideas and people."

Every now and then, Steinbrück was able to put Merkel on the defensive on some issues, but she was able to sow doubts about her challenger, Steinbrück says. "Her strategy was that of making clear that she was the incumbent and could be trusted. The subtext was always: 'You know me,' which in reverse meant that you can't be so sure about that Steinbrück fellow."

Four years later, it looks as though Merkel is again following the same strategy. And when it comes to the debate, she has already secured one advantage. In accordance with tradition, a drawing was held to determine who will open the debate. The result? Schulz will get the first question -- and Merkel will have the last word.

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