German election campaign goes back to the future

Irish-style door-to-door canvassing has been enhanced with specialised apps to win votes

Sunday’s federal election campaign is Germany’s most Irish campaign ever, as Bundestag hopefuls revive the lost art of door-to-door canvassing.

But this is Germany, the land of Vorsprung durch Technik – ahead through engineering – so don't think they're ringing random doorbells.

Instead MPs-to-be are fanning out across the constituencies armed with roses, apples and smartphones loaded with big data to optimise their hunt for votes.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has created its own app, Connect17, drawing on data from the federal statistics office and polling agencies. In the southwest city of Freiburg, local candidate Matern von Marshall and his team have already knocked on 7,000 doors, as chosen by the app, with another 3,000 to go.


“We hope this will lead to good election results,” he told local broadcaster SWR.

An hour north, in Karlsruhe, Social Democrat (SPD) candidate Parsa Marvi and his team check their party’s canvassing app, Tür zu Tür (Door to Door), to identify pockets of party support they hope will help him take the Bundestag seat.

Stored for the future

As well as determining routes, each canvasser uses the app to record whether or not anyone was home and, if so, how their conversation went. All data is stored centrally by the party for future campaigns.

“The app is good to record particular concerns or requests of citizens,” said Mr Marvi. Doorstep canvassing has made a comeback in Germany after positive results in state elections. But political analysts are cautious about what effect – if any – big data will have on the final result.

For one thing, strict data protection laws mean that German parties, marketing companies and polling agencies know far less about voters here than their US counterparts.

“In the US there is very precise data about citizens’ views, which we don’t have,” said political scientist Prof Ulrich Eith to SWR. “The German method is merely based on which parties did well in which particular districts.”

The app is a good way to show a party is keeping up with trends, he said, even if it has brought parties back to the oldest campaigning method of them all.

A call from Merkel

Back in Freiburg, young CDU canvassers are engaged in a street battle with each other to see who can ring the most doorbells. The app allows each user to collect points and see their ranking in local and national league tables.

“You can turn it into a little competition. I think that motivates people,” said Caroline Jenkner, a CDU Freiburg canvasser.

Some 9,000 CDU campaigners countrywide have already knocked on about 700,000 doors, according to the party. And the party headquarters say the top 10 CDU canvassers can look forward to a personal phone call from party leader Merkel. One young campaigner, Alexander Stummvoll, who knocked on 17,000 doors, already got his.

“Speechless: this morning, completely out of the blue, Angela Merkel rang me on my mobile,” he wrote on Facebook. “Thanks for the motivating, unforgettable phone call.”