Kurt Beck, governor of the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, must have sensed what was coming. On the morning of Germany's federal election, Beck was at his local polling place in the small town of Steinfeld when someone asked him how things would turn out for his center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Beck, a former SPD leader who was once touted as his party's savior, hemmed and hawed with his reply, saying, "When you're caught up in the election yourself, you lose a bit of your feel for it."
Nine hours later, the results were clear. The SPD had lost not only its feel for the voters, but also a third of its voters themselves. Not to mention its role as a governing party.
It turns out that Frank-Walter Steinmeier was the wrong candidate. Or the SPD was the wrong party. Or perhaps both: the wrong candidate with the wrong party. And in the end it no longer mattered much which had less of a chance, the candidate with too little charisma or the mass party without the masses. In any case, the SPD and its candidates lost more than 11 percentage points compared to the 2005 national election. Unlike in August 2005, when pre-election polls also showed the SPD at only 28 percent but the party managed to get 34.2 percent of the final vote, this time the predictions didn't lie.
The SPD lost because it lost hold of eastern Germany. It lost even more dramatically with young voters across the country. It suffered drastic losses among its core voters -- the working class -- and even more among what former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called the "new middle" -- white-collar workers (see graphics). But above all, no other party was so completely unable to mobilize its own supporters. It wasn't just voters who punished the party, but also non-voters.
The SPD's situation isn't comparable to that of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its partner in the current grand coalition government and Germany's other major political party. Admittedly the CDU also lost votes because supporters stayed home. And it also lost support among voters of all ages and in almost all professions, and especially among men. But the damage was considerably less. In the areas where it was substantial, for example among the self-employed, who showed a 9 percent drop in support for the CDU, the party that benefited the most instead was the Free Democratic Party (FDP) -- conveniently, the CDU's preferred coalition partner.
An additional factor was the SPD's clear shortcomings after four years of an awkward alliance between the country's two biggest parties. Voters clearly wanted to keep the CDU and Chancellor Angela Merkel in power, so if another four years of the grand coalition was unpalatable, then the only thing to do was to kick out the SPD and replace it with the FDP.
Thus the FDP, the economic liberals, became the election's biggest winners. They notched up gains in all segments of the population, and even reached their mythical target of 18 percent of the vote among male voters in western Germany. FDP party leader Guido Westerwelle famously wrote the number 18 on the soles of his shoes during the 2002 election campaign, only to be laughed at for the next seven years because of his supposed hubris.
And while the SPD lost precipitously, two additional election winners, the Left Party and the Greens, also made gains across almost all demographic groups. They improved their standing with young and old, the well-educated and less well-educated, with blue-collar and white-collar workers and retired people.
A closer look at the SPD's worst election showing since World War II reveals that the party lost the biggest share of its votes -- around 2.1 million -- because of voters who participated in 2005 but didn't bother going to the polls this time around. The polling firm Infratest dimap reached this conclusion in an analysis conducted on behalf of German public broadcaster ARD. It seems there was deep-seated bitterness among SPD supporters that what was once the party of common people and high expectations had now, together with the CDU, pushed through raising Germany's retirement age from 65 to 67. That insult came on top of a previous injury in the form of the deeply unpopular Hartz IV program of welfare reforms introduced by the SPD under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
A further 1.1 million voters apparently switched allegiance to the Left Party for the same reason, and 860,000 went to the Greens, which are both considered to belong to the left-wing camp in Germany's political landscape. Even more alarming for the SPD, however, are the losses to the opposition. The CDU won over 870,000 voters once loyal to the SPD, and even the FDP grabbed a good half million former SPD votes -- a clear sign that the Social Democrats had, as part of the grand coalition, lost a large part of its political identity.
However, the CDU also immediately lost again what gains it had won over from the SPD, thanks to 1.2 million of its own voters who stayed away from the polls. In addition, 1.1 million voters switched from the CDU to the FDP. Very few supporters of the conservative CDU strayed to the other side of the political divide, however, with only about 40,000 casting their ballots for the Left Party and 60,000 switching to the Greens -- all in all, figures hardly worth discussing.
SPD Loses Its Appeal
It was that loyalty to the prospect of a CDU/CSU-FDP coalition on the part of Christian Democratic defectors that brought victory to the center-right parties, who are now set to go into government together. Meanwhile, the Left Party's election results, however impressive they may seem, also reveal the limits of a protest party. True, it was able to benefit from the reeling SPD -- who couldn't? But the Left Party's hopes of winning over support from former non-voters were not fulfilled. In fact, quite the opposite was true -- even the Left Party lost 350,000 voters because they did not bother to go to the polls.
A look at young voters reveals especially clearly just how drastically the SPD has lost its appeal during four years of the grand coalition. In the past, the SPD was still sexy. Among young voters, the largest segment supported the Social Democrats at the 2005 election. The feeling used to be that if you were young and wanted to make the world better, then you believed in the SPD.
That only served to make the disappointment greater -- both disappointment among young voters at the SPD and disappointment within the SPD at the result. Only 17 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 24 supported the Social Democrats this time around, 21 percent less than in 2005. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, the party's standing dropped by 16 percent. Instead, young voters went for the CDU. With a 25 percent share of the vote among voters aged between 18 and 24, the Christian Democrats did the best of any party, and hardly any worse than their own results in the last election.
The Greens and the Left Party also showed gains among young voters, in the Greens' case especially among female voters, with one in five women under 24 voting for the environmental party. The strongest draw for women voters, however, was another woman -- Chancellor Merkel. Unlike in 2005, this time having a female candidate proved to have its benefits. Some 35 percent of women voted for the CDU, compared to 31 percent of men. Four years ago it was the opposite, with more men than women supporting Merkel. For the SPD, meanwhile, the loss of Gerhard Schröder also appeared to mean the loss of female support as well. Successor candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier saw support for the SPD drop by 13 percent among female voters, making his showing among women voters worse than his overall result.