Seven Months with Martin Schulz The Anatomy of a Failed Campaign

When he first announced his candidacy, ex-European Parliament President Martin Schulz rocketed upward in the opinion polls. But his slide was just as dramatic. DER SPIEGEL was with him throughout and provides a unique look from the inside of his doomed effort to unseat Angela Merkel.

Hermann Bredehorst/ DER SPIEGEL


Five more hours. Then he'll finally know how this insane mission will conclude. He's sitting on the terrace of his home in Würselen, surrounded by the people who have stood loyally by his side throughout the campaign. The sun is shining, the garden is in bloom and Belgian rice tarts have been set out on the table. Now, it has simply come down to killing time.

Martin Schulz, the candidate for chancellor for the center-left Social Democratic Party, has brewed a pot of filter coffee for his guests, but his wife has made him an herbal tea instead. It's better, she insists, given all the jitters and tension.

The group once again rehashes a few stories from the campaign trail as Schulz's mobile telephone buzzes with heartening text messages from well-wishers in both Germany and abroad. "You fought like a lion," writes Werner Faymann, the former chancellor of Austria. "Congratulations on your vigorous campaign," writes a fellow SPD member from Germany, adding that Schulz has restored the party's courage and fighting spirit.

"It's amazing all that you have endured in the last few months," says his wife Inge. "And in an organization that wasn't tailored to you in the least."

Schulz sips his herbal tea. "I gave it everything I could," he says. "Both physically and psychologically." Knowing that, he says, gives him a sense of inner peace.

Then it's time to leave for Berlin. "On to the last battle," calls out his speechwriter, Jonas Hirschnitz, as everyone stands to go. Hirschnitz is carrying an SPD flag with him, which he waves on the terrace one last time.

"No," Schulz says. "It's not the last battle.

The battle Schulz fought over the course of the last several months was a tough one and behind him lies one of the most curious election campaigns in modern German history. The spike in the polls Schulz experienced shortly after his nomination in late January was just as singular as his later collapse. In September, he went on to lead the 154-year-old, once-proud party to its worst-ever postwar election result.

Martin Schulz's campaign is the story of a candidate who grew increasingly frustrated with his inability to pin down Chancellor Angela Merkel, the incumbent -- and who likewise grew frustrated with some of his own party allies. It is the story of a man who struggled in vain to remain true to himself throughout the campaign but was only able to do so once the polling stations had closed. Not as chancellor, but as the leader of an opposition party.

Just 20.5 percent. That is the sobering outcome of months of a chronic lack of sleep, hundreds of strategy meetings, 41 large campaign rallies, countless conflicts, three townhall meeting-style TV appearances, constantly shifting emotions, dozens of interviews and one so-called debate.

March 22, Hotel Mövenpick Restaurant, Berlin

He has just come from a rally of 500 people for new party members in Berlin's Kreuzberg district, and before dinner is served, his office manager wants to know how it went. "Like always," Schulz tells her on the phone. "I held a dramatic speech, got a big round of applause and then I left." Everything feels so easy at the moment. Everything is working and it's a lot of fun. If it really were possible to grin from ear to ear, that is what Schulz would be doing on this evening in the restaurant of the Mövenpick Hotel in Berlin.

The Mövenpick has been his go-to Berlin place of lodging for years now, because it fulfills Schulz's top three requirements for a Berlin hotel: It is close to SPD headquarters in the Willy Brandt House; it has no unnecessary frills; and the food is decent, particularly the currywurst, sausages with curry-flavored ketchup.

It is the peak of the so-called "Schulz hype" and the candidate is spending much of his time meeting some of the thousands of new SPD members who only joined the party because of him. Three days earlier, a national SPD convention elected him as party chairman with a 100 percent result, and the widespread enthusiasm is making it look as though he has a realistic shot at victory in September.

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In public opinion polls, the SPD stands at 30 percent, where it has been for weeks. "That's what is making the conservatives so angry -- that their prayers aren't being answered," Schulz says. He folds his hands, looks up at the ceiling and sarcastically implores: "Dear Lord, please let it be but a passing moment!"

When received his party's nomination in January, Schulz had hoped that the SPD would climb to 25 percent by the time the convention rolled around in March. He then planned to increase it slowly throughout the campaign. "But that things would take off like they did! My goodness! I didn't think it was possible," he gushes.

The situation, he says, is reminiscent of the famous "Willy Election" in 1972, the triumph of former West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt that has gone down in SPD lore. Even though he was a teenager at the time, Schulz says, he could sense that it was about Willy and about deeply felt emotions. "Against the conservatives, against the right-wingers and for Willy. That's what it was about back then." Today, it's the same, he says: Against the right and for Europe. "That is the gut feeling among the youth. It's an emotion."

Schulz says that Merkel's party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), hasn't yet understood that the election will be decided on the basis of feelings. "And I happen to be the one who triggers more emotion." He sincerely believes that he will be able to defeat Angela Merkel with emotions - which is why he doesn't want to present any ideas or campaign platforms for the time being. "I insist: Don't get too specific! My refusal to be pinned down is driving the conservatives crazy! They can take a hike!"

Schulz has also decided to do his best to stay even-tempered and remain friendly. Conservatives are currently launching bitter attacks against him, but Schulz insists that is all like water off a duck's back. He says it's a sign that they're getting nervous. "I'm going to stick stubbornly to my guns: I won't attack them. The longer I am able to avoid reacting, the worse they will look. Amazing that they don't get it!"

April 12, Hotel Königsdorf, Hannover

Late in the evening, he takes a seat at the desk in his hotel suite to write about his day in his diary. Earlier that evening, he gave a speech at Capitol, an event venue in Hannover. It will be his last speech for a time -- and, once again, he was met with the boisterous cheering of thousands of enthusiastic supporters. The Schulz-euphoria hasn't yet spent itself. The vote in the state of Saarland in late March, where the SPD lost badly to Merkel's CDU, may have been a setback, but his party, Schulz is certain, will emerge victorious in the two state votes that are approaching. The fact that the Saarland election will come to be seen as the moment when Schulz's candidacy began to go sour hasn't yet become clear.

He takes a last look at his diary entry. All in all, another good day. He then shuts the journal, pours himself a glass of apple juice and sits down on the couch.

He is looking forward to the coming days. Easter is just a few days away, offering him a brief respite after all the hype, and after that, the plan calls for a less frenetic phase of the campaign to allow the SPD candidates in the states of Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia to run their campaigns without external interference.

Later, Schulz will say that it was a mistake to discontinue his schedule of public appearances. It was a point of conflict within his team, with some arguing that such events played to his strengths. But ultimately, the viewpoint won out that such rallies had served their purpose and it was time to move on. The media wasn't reporting on them anymore, anyway. "That was wrong," Schulz says in hindsight. "We should have kept going."

Back in his hotel room, Schulz says a debate is raging among conservatives over whether or not to go on the attack against him. "Schäuble and Spahn," he says, referring to senior CDU members Wolfgang Schäuble and Jens Spahn, "want to pound on Schulz. But Merkel and (Chancellery Chief of Staff Peter) Altmaier say: 'He's running himself ragged. Let him run. In serenity, there is strength.' But they're wrong. I'm running, but I'm not running myself ragged. They underestimate us. They think we're stupid."

Schulz, who is his own harshest critic, often says out loud what is going through his mind. Even when he is surrounded by people, his comments sometimes sound like an inner monologue that has forced its way out. In this respect, the difference between him and Angela Merkel - who rarely offers a window on her thoughts - could hardly be greater.

That morning, he was woken up at 5:30 a.m. by a text message from former SPD leader and current Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. After the bomb attack on the Borussia Dortmund team bus the day before, Gabriel wrote, Merkel uttered the brilliant sentence: "Today, we are all BVB." But there has been nothing from the SPD, Gabriel complained. "Where are we?" Additional text messages followed.

Schulz says that he sent out the first Twitter message about the unfortunate events in Dortmund: A photo of himself with a BVB team scarf around his neck. Schulz, who only became the SPD candidate because Gabriel saw fit to resign from the SPD chairmanship and get out of the way, is slowly realizing that his friend isn't able to completely let go and that he still wants to exert a certain amount of control. The two have been close for many years; and although they have fought repeatedly, they have always succeeded in reconciling their differences. Schulz is a loyal person and wants to avoid having to clip his old friend's wings. He doesn't yet realize that their failure to clarify the nature of their new relationship will be a factor throughout the entire campaign.

The next day, Schulz drives to Würselen in the hopes that the next eight days at home will allow him to relax. Various campaign aides will visit him there for meetings and strategy sessions, and he will spend a lot of time on the telephone, but more than a week will pass between his last public appearance in Hannover and the next one in Cologne. In this age of agitation and instant gratification, though, a few days feels like half a year. Newspapers begin wondering: "What exactly is Martin Schulz up to?" Once the break comes to an end, DER SPIEGEL writes in its newsletter: "Haven't heard much from the SPD chancellor candidate in a while after his fervid start. But today he is back on the trail, campaigning in Schleswig-Holstein, where he is visiting a fish smokehouse and a pump factory."

If there is one thing that you can say about a political culture in which a slower pace over eight days at Easter is a problem, it is this: It's not very Christian.

May 7, SPD Headquarters, Berlin

It is shortly before 6 p.m. when Schulz turns on the television in his party chairman's office. In just a few minutes, the country will learn what everyone in the Willy Brandt House, the Social Democrats' national headquarters, already knows: The SPD didn't do well in the Schleswig-Holstein state elections.

"If the SPD doesn't win," says Tina Hassel, the anchor on public broadcaster ARD, "then the Schulz hype will have completely evaporated." She's speaking in the conjunctive even though journalists and politicians have access to early results and she already knows how the SPD fared.

"Such is the privilege of being SPD chairman," says Andrea Nahles, who is sitting next to Schulz along with many other members of SPD leadership. "You get to be blamed for all the problems of others." What can I say, says Schulz? "If you get whacked on the head, you get whacked on the head."

Shhh, everyone listen, he says as the first analyses are shown on television. A journalist says that the result in the state was strongly influenced by regional factors. "Aha," Schulz calls out, his finger in the air. "That is an interesting analysis." Regional factors is shorthand for: Schleswig-Holstein Governor Torsten Albig, of the SPD, focused on the wrong issues and gave a stupefyingly idiotic interview about his failed marriage - and is therefore to blame. Not Schulz. It offers a tiny sliver of hope on an otherwise depressing day.

"He was the wrong candidate," Schulz says, "But now we have to clean up the mess." When he steps before the cameras in the atrium of the Willy Brandt House a short time later, he will speak of "communication deficits" that had apparently been present in Schleswig-Holstein. "I will call it what it is: a total defeat."

"But you should also say a couple of things about the path forward," says his campaign manager, Markus Engels. "This evening, it's all about deportment. The SPD has to get the message that its leading man is still standing. And you can say that the national election isn't decided in Saarland or in Schleswig-Holstein."

"Very good, Dr. Engels!" Schulz praises him. He'll say, Schulz continues, that it's like in football: If the opposing team scores a goal, you have to pull yourself together and redouble your effort. Politicians love football metaphors, particularly when they are male members of the SPD. Schulz looks to his press spokesman: "Or have I said that before, Dünow?"

Tobias Dünow googles the sentences on his iPhone. Unfortunately, the search reveals that he said something similar after the defeat in Saarland. "Crap," he says. "What about: I'm from North Rhine-Westphalia. There, after a bad day, you get up the next morning and get back to work." Everyone likes it. "That's what we'll do," says Schulz.

He then says he has to go out for a second to call his wife, Inge. "She is always so agitated and thinks that I must be too. I'm not, but I have to remind her."

After five minutes, he comes back. "I've got it," he announces, standing in the door with a big grin on his face.

"What do you have?"

He says he knows what he will say in his statement. "As of now, the goal is no longer that of winning the Chancellery, but of surmounting the five-percent hurdle." Silence, incredulous faces. Schulz, who isn't just widely read but is also usually quite serious, likes to try to loosen up moments of tension with small jokes. It is his way of dealing with the stresses of politics. "And then we'll fire our treasurer."

Dietmar Nietan, the treasurer, looks on in annoyance. "These days, heads must roll," Schulz says. "You always need a scapegoat. And this time I'm afraid it has to be Dietmar."

When he returns to his office after giving his statement in the atrium below, Torsten Albig, the loser of Schleswig-Holstein, is speaking on television. "So. Time for quiet," Schulz says as he mutes the volume. "Fine. This is obviously a shitty situation. But what can you do?" Now, he adds, we just have to wait for the state election in North Rhine-Westphalia to be over and then the campaign can finally begin in earnest. Then he will finally be the focus of attention. "My greatest attribute is authenticity."

May 12, Highway Rest Stop Bottrop South

Schulz walks across a garbage-strewn patch of grass and sits down on a metal bench, its blue paint peeling. "First, a relaxed cup of coffee and then time for a leak." An aide brings him a coffee to-go from the rest stop McDonald's. Honking cars, the roar of traffic on the Autobahn, screaming children: It is a classic campaign-style break.

For the last several days, he has been traveling nonstop through state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). Just now, he is coming from Grevenbroich, where he visited a factory, and is heading to Dülmen for an appearance at the weekly farmers market there. Schulz would like to look ahead, but finds it difficult, rankled as he is by the past and the present. The state elections, that he had initially thought would be a boost for his campaign, have proven to be just the opposite.

He's not happy with education and security policy in Schleswig-Holstein and NRW, nor does he approve of their transportation policy. Schulz is supposed to represent a new, reborn SPD, but he is faced with the fact that his party has had a hand in policymaking for decades and hasn't always done a good job. He also isn't happy with the lead SPD candidates, who he had no hand in choosing - the arrogance of some and the petulance of others. "None of this is my fault," he says. That is the disadvantage of being the head of such a party, he continues. "You are responsible for everything, but you only have limited influence."

But he is also aware of the mistakes he has made himself - that he squandered his momentum following the first wave of enthusiasm for his candidacy. "I said to my eggheads, I want to tell you something." Eggheads, it should be mentioned, is Schulz's term for his closest aides and is meant as a term of endearment. "All of your pollsters said: Mr. Schulz, don't get too specific! Keep vague for as long as you can!" He shakes his head. "Now, we are losing one election after the next and I have to listen to people telling me: You are losing because you didn't offer specific policy proposals."

In politics, personal convictions are increasingly being replaced by public opinion research. There are few policy proposals, strategies or candidates anymore that haven't first been tested for their public approval. Schulz's own candidacy is the result of the fact that, for months, his likability ratings were higher than Sigmar Gabriel's.

May 14, SPD Headquarters, Berlin

Once again, he is sitting in his office, once again, the television is on and once again, it is showing a defeat for the SPD, this time the worst one of all, in North Rhine-Westphalia, a party stronghold. "Life is like a chicken ladder," Schulz says. "Covered in shit." Nobody says anything, the room is silent. "I have now become the royal defeat commentator." He shakes his head in disbelief.

Schulz stares at the TV screen. When the results are shown, revealing just 30.5 percent for the SPD, he is silent, his finger pressed to his lips. He then stands up, hands in his pockets, and begins pacing back and forth across his office, eventually walking to the window and gazing outside.

Again, he finds himself faced with the question as to how he should react to this latest disaster, what he should say to his fellow SPD members and to the public at large. Schulz turns around: "I mean, the problem we have is that I can really only say that we need a couple of days to analyze the results."

"What you say doesn't matter a bit," says his spokesman Dünow. "The only important thing is that you don't give the impression of being depressed. You have to seem combative."

On television, the moderator reminds his guest, SPD politician Karl Lauterbach, of something that Schulz said just a few weeks earlier about the SPD incumbent governor in the state: "If Hannelore Kraft wins in North Rhine-Westphalia in May, then I will become chancellor in September." The commentator would like to know if the statement was still valid. Lauterbach answers: "Martin Schulz didn't say that he would lose if she failed to win."

"Ha," Schulz calls out and claps his hands. "Karl is a class act." It is a defiant moment of triumph, a brief revolt against the depression that is filling the room.

Later, deputy party chairman Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel storms into the office. He has been asked to give an interview to "heute journal," a politics newsmagazine on public broadcaster ZDF, and wanted to ask if it might be better for the candidate himself to take over. "I have commented on enough defeats," Schulz says. "The only thing I do is comment on defeats. I am tired of it." He shakes his head and stares into the distance. "I have to finally go on the offensive." He begins walking aimlessly through his office. Somebody remarks that Angela Merkel hasn't been seen at all that evening. "She never comes out," he says, acerbically. "For 12 years she hasn't."

After his office has emptied, he wants to watch the evening news. The anchor says that the SPD has received its worst-ever result in North Rhine-Westphalia. "Man, there are bitter moments in life. Laschet of all people," says Schulz, referring to the CDU election winner Armin Laschet, who defeated Kraft. When a moderator sardonically comments on the "completely deflated Schulz effect," Schulz cries: "That scumbag! He doesn't have even an iota of decency!" When Hannelore Kraft appears on the screen, he says: "We paid a high price for you."

Later, he will say that the party and his campaign never recovered from the day of the NRW election. He will also say that the biggest mistake he made in the campaign was allowing Kraft to convince him that he should stay away from her re-election campaign. After he had presented a reform proposal for unemployment benefits in the spring together with Andrea Nahles, and then joined Family Minister Manuela Schwesig of the SPD to introduce the idea of monetary benefits to help working parents spend more time with their children, Schulz had wanted to introduce an education offensive together with Malu Dreyer, governor of Rhineland-Palatinate. The plan had called for him to do so before the election in NRW, but Kraft had been vehement in her opposition. Doing so, she feared, would highlight the deep problems with the education system in her own state. He had wanted to override her objections, Schulz would later say, but several people told him that he couldn't do that to Kraft. So, he didn't. "I should have listened more closely to my gut and my intuition," Schulz says in hindsight.

May 22, Wilhelmstrasse, Berlin

A bomb threat. SPD leaders have been standing on the sidewalk in front of SPD headquarters for two hours. They gathered that morning to approve the draft campaign platform, with Schulz hoping to finally be able to go on the offensive. He wants to finally offer specific policy proposals.

No bomb is found. But there are other problems.

The news conference, at which the campaign platform is to be presented, is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. and the event has already been announced over the German newswire DPA. But because there were countless requests for amendments and because it wasn't clear that the original timeline could be adhered to, an employee at the SPD press office had called DPA and asked them to remove the event for the time being, adding that the SPD would inform the news agency when a new conference was scheduled. That leads to news reports that the SPD is postponing the passage of its campaign platform. It is the kickoff to a seemingly unending series of bad luck and mishaps. When the news conference finally is held, Schulz himself is not part of it. His advisers told him that the three chairs of the platform commission, Thomas Oppermann, Manuela Schwesig and Katarina Barley, should be in charge of presenting it and that the candidate himself should speak about it only on evening television.

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jenserler 10/18/2017
1. Some missing points
Thank you for the insightful inside story. However, I am not yet cynical enough to believe that a string of bad luck is enough to explain away such a historic defeat. Rather, the most obvious reason is still Gerhard Schröder`s Agenda 2010, after which the SPD ceased to exist as we knew it. If the party does not come clean with its own take on the Agenda this will not have been the last or even the worst defeat. Martin Schulz received a great gift: as his initial surge in the polls showed, voters were giving him a serious look. This must not be taken for granted for the challenger. Unfortunately, he did not recognize the fundamental problems of the current day economic truth: rising income inequality, even though his catch phrase was "justice". Virtually all of the economic growth goes to the top one percent, while the rest is loosing in real terms. On at least two occasions television moderators asked Schulz about lowering the value added tax which hits low and middle income households more than any other tax. He responded with a disappointing and scientifically unproven claim, that companies would pocket the money rather than turning it over to the customers. Are market this inefficient? Martin Schulz should have advocated a bold goal such as phasing out the VAT. All the attention would have been his. Instead, those feeling left out keep moving to the over-simplified ideas of the far right, just as in most developed countries. I am not at all a regular SPD voter, but I have deep sympathy for the historical achievements and sacrifices of Social Democrats. Still, by the end of the day, anytime I put myself into the shoes of someone wanting to convince somebody else to vote for them and searching for arguments in favor, I keep coming up empty.
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