Big win for Merkel’s party confounds pundits and pollsters – POLITICO

BERLIN — A resounding victory for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in a small eastern state had German pollsters and pundits posing a big question: Why didn’t we see it coming?

In the run-up to Sunday’s election in Saxony-Anhalt, polls had put Merkel’s CDU and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) neck and neck. Some even had the AfD in first place. That prompted much alarm and angst among mainstream German politicians and media outlets, particularly as a national parliamentary election is little more than three months away.

Yet the final result was not remotely close. The center-right CDU won 37.1 percent of the vote while the AfD came second with 20.8 percent. The CDU’s result was nearly 10 percentage points higher than its score in the polls just a few days before the vote. Its margin of victory was more than 16 percentage points — a world away from the small single-digit lead suggested by the polls.

“This shows that moods and polls do not decide elections, but voters do,” Armin Laschet, the CDU’s leader and candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor in September’s general election, crowed to reporters Monday. “This is a good day for the CDU and for democracy in Germany.”

But others suggested the polls themselves played a part in the outcome, as voters alarmed by the prospect of an AfD victory rallied behind the CDU and its popular state premier, Reiner Haseloff.

“We managed to make citizens aware of what it would have meant if the polls published shortly before election day turned out to be true,” Haseloff said.

Tarik Abou-Chadi, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Zurich, said there was likely no one simple explanation for the surprise result. “The main question is: Were the polls wrong or have people changed their behavior? It’s probably a bit of both,” he said.

On the polling side, Abou-Chadi said it was harder to do accurate surveys in small states like Saxony-Anhalt, which is home to about 2.2 million people. Moreover, such states are not often in the national political spotlight so not many polls are conducted there. That means researchers have a shortage of empirical data to draw upon, Abou-Chadi said.

When it comes to the politics, experts said one reason for the CDU’s success was that Haseloff distanced himself clearly from the AfD (a stance that contrasted with the flirtation of some CDU leaders in eastern Germany with the far right). A vote for Haseloff was thus understood by many as a vote against the radical right.

While voter turnout — at 60.3 percent — was down slightly compared to the last state election in 2016, the CDU was able to attract more than 61,000 voters who stayed home last time.

Although the AfD was far ahead of other parties in second place, the result was nonetheless something of a blow for the far-right party. It experienced a big surge in popularity in formerly communist eastern Germany in the second half of the last decade, in large part due to a fierce anti-migrant stance.

The AfD shook up Saxony-Anhalt’s political landscape in 2016, when it took part in an election to the state legislature for the first time, winning 24.3 percent of the vote. This time, it had to settle for a score more than four percentage points lower.

The party’s Saxony-Anhalt branch is widely regarded as extreme even by the AfD’s standards. It has been under surveillance by Germany’s domestic intelligence service since January 2021.

Data showed many of its votes in Sunday’s election came from young men, but it lost a significant percentage of its voters to the CDU.

“The willingness of the electorate to change its party is greater in eastern Germany. That’s something we’ve observed since the 1990s,” said Peter Matuschek from opinion pollsters Forsa.

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