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After Nearly 16 Years As Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel Has No Clear Successor In Sunday’s Election

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.


It might be an off-year election cycle in the U.S., but September has been full of high-profile elections. First we had the California recall election, then Canada’s parliamentary election this past Monday. And on Sunday, Germany will go to the polls to decide the makeup of its parliament’s lower chamber, the Bundestag. Those results will determine who leads Germany’s government, and importantly, that individual won’t be long-time Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is stepping down after nearly 16 years in charge.

The race to replace Merkel appears to be very uncertain, too, because no one party looks likely to win a large plurality of seats, much less a majority. That means the next government, like every one in Germany since World War II, will likely be a coalition of at least two parties — and quite possibly a third. And while the leader of the party that wins the most seats often ends up as chancellor, that’s not always the case. In all likelihood, though, the next chancellor will come from one of Germany’s two major parties: either the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) helmed by Olaf Scholz, or Merkel’s party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), now led by Armin Laschet. However, there is a small chance that Annalena Baerbock of The Greens, a left-leaning, environmentally conscious party, could also lead the next government.

Most polling averages show a tight race with a highly fragmented vote across Germany’s seven notable parties. The SPD has been on the rise since late July and now leads in the polls with just around 25 percent, thanks in part to Scholz’s status as the most popular choice among German voters to be the next chancellor. Next up is the CDU and its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU),1 which together have seen their polling numbers fall into the low 20s as Laschet has received negative reviews for his performance in debates and on the campaign trail. The Greens, who held a small lead in the polls back in the spring, are now at around 15 percent. Three other parties are polling above the 5 percent threshold necessary to make it into the Bundestag (more on that cut-off later), although only two are potential coalition partners: The classically liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) is polling at about 11 percent, while the left-wing and aptly named The Left Party is polling at about 6 percent. The far-right and xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD) is actually polling higher than The Left at around 11 percent, but Germany’s other parties have ruled out forming a governing coalition with the AfD because of its extreme views.


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Yet there’s reason to be a tad worried about the state of the polls in Germany. The Washington Post’s Lenny Bronner recently found there’s a strong likelihood pollsters are “herding,” which is the tendency for pollsters to produce results that are too similar to one another. Bronner noticed that the shares the SPD and AfD have received in polls are very consistent across pollsters — in fact, in all likelihood too consistent. As we’ve found at FiveThirtyEight, herding can be especially common at the end of the campaign, perhaps because pollsters are afraid of producing outliers that go against the rest of the field. But the unfortunate upshot is that herding often leads pollsters to underestimate some parties’ support and, in turn, leads election forecasters to underestimate the uncertainty in the polls.

Even with this concern, however, there is clearly no party flying high in the polls, which makes it difficult to say with any certainty what the eventual governing coalition will look like in Germany. Germans like to name potential governing coalitions after things that match the colors of their respective parties, so bearing that in mind, the two most likely coalitions at this point are probably a left-leaning “traffic light” government formed by the SPD (which uses red as its color), the FDP (yellow) and The Greens (no explanation needed), or a right-leaning “Jamaica” government formed by the CDU/CSU (black), the FDP and the Greens. However, each of those coalitions would include a party that doesn’t comfortably align ideologically — the FDP in the former, The Greens in the latter — which could complicate coalition negotiations. In 2017, for instance, efforts to put together a “Jamaica” coalition fell apart. And while the business-friendly FDP could join a “traffic light” coalition, FDP leader Christian Lindner has said he wants control over the finance ministry in exchange for helping Scholz become chancellor, which could be a hurdle for the SPD and The Greens since having the FDP in that position could limit how much they can raise taxes and expand deficit spending.

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That’s why other coalition options could come into play, including an “R2G” (red, red, green) coalition made up of the SPD, The Left and The Greens. In the final days of the campaign, Merkel has voiced fears about the possibility of a left-wing government, arguing it would turn the country away from the moderate course she’s pursued over the past decade and a half. And The Left does have some views that could make an all-left coalition untenable, including a desire to leave NATO and a lingering connection to old Communist East Germany. Some additional coalitions include a “Germany” coalition of the CDU/CSU, SPD and FDP or a larger “Kenya” coalition of the CDU/CSU, SPD and The Greens. There could even be a renewal of the current “grand coalition” government of the CDU/CSU and SPD, too.

But OK, that’s a lot of potential coalitions. Let’s talk about how the German electoral system works — as that’s why so many different coalitions are possible. Elections for the Bundestag combine the principles of proportional and district-level representation, so Germans actually cast two votes at the ballot box: one for a local candidate and one for a party, which allows voters to potentially split their ticket between parties. The first vote functions similarly to most elections in the U.S.: The candidate with the most votes in each of Germany’s 299 single-member districts wins the seat. But the second vote is more important, as it determines the proportional share of seats each party will have in the Bundestag once all is said and done. The 299 district-level members are joined by at least another 299 members elected from a ranked list of candidates submitted by each party ahead of the election, with each party gaining whatever number of candidates from the party list it needs to reach its proportional share of seats based on the second vote.

And as mentioned earlier, a party must win at least 5 percent of the party-preference vote, or win at least three single-member districts, to gain proportional representation in the Bundestag.2 However, there is one last wrinkle in Germany’s electoral system: It is possible for a party to win more single-members seats than it is entitled to based on its party-preference vote. When this happens, the Bundestag expands beyond its 598 seats by adding even more members from party lists to ensure each party’s seat total aligns with its party-preference vote share. After the 2017 election, for instance, the Bundestag ended up with 709 total seats, 111 more than its base number, and some projections suggest the Bundestag could be even larger after the 2021 election to ensure proportionality.

Heading into Sunday, it looks like an unpredictable race, with perhaps an even more uncertain coalition-building process to follow. But one thing is certain: This election will mark the end of a distinct era in German and European politics. That’s because Merkel, a longtime force of stability and leadership in her country, and for the European Union more broadly, is exiting the stage. Merkel, who was sometimes called “leader of the free world” during Donald Trump’s presidency because of his isolationist bent, was the first woman to serve as Germany’s chancellor, and she ranks high among the country’s longest-serving leaders. Whoever has the job next will have big shoes to fill.

Other polling bites

  • The U.S. Supreme Court announced on Monday that it will hear a case in December concerning a Mississippi abortion law that challenges Roe v. Wade. Mississippi’s 2018 law bans most abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy. This case comes as most Americans (62 percent) want the court to leave the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision as is, per a recent Monmouth University poll. The Mississippi law isn’t the only high-profile law to challenge the right to abortion, either. Earlier in September, the nation’s most restrictive abortion law went into effect in Texas after the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 vote declining to pause the law while lower courts continue to rule on its constitutionality. Overall, Americans’ disapproval rating of the Supreme Court’s performance (45 percent) is only 3 percentage points higher than approval of the court (42 percent).
  • Favorability of the United States has fallen in France after Australia pulled out of a $66 billion submarine deal. Australia canceled this contract with France in favor of partnering with the United States and the United Kingdom instead. Upset by this deal, France withdrew its ambassadors from the U.S. and Australia. And, per a recent Morning Consult poll, favorable views of the U.S. have since slipped in France from 49 percent to 44 percent. However, U.S. popularity among Australians has increased by 2 points with 51 percent of Australians now viewing the U.S. favorably, according to the same poll.
  • President Biden announced on Wednesday that the U.S. is doubling its purchase of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines to donate to lower-income countries. Forty-nine percent of Americans say that providing COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries is important (although not a top priority), per a recent Pew Research Center poll. Meanwhile, the Biden administration also wants to roll out Pfizer booster shots for U.S. adults, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends only high risk adults and those over 65 receive a third dose. This has been tricky for the Biden administration to navigate as only 32 percent of the world is fully vaccinated, but most vaccinated Americans (62 percent) say they would get a booster shot if recommended, according to Pew.
  • Thousands of Haitian migrants are trying to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. Many fled to Central and South America after an earthquake in 2010 and are now leaving due to a lack of jobs, but say they don’t feel safe returning to Haiti. Since that disaster, in 2021 alone, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck the southwestern part of the nation, and the country’s president was assassinated. Per a recent Rasmussen survey, 52 percent of likely U.S. voters think Biden’s response to immigration issues has been poor. Moreover, a majority of voters across the political spectrum — 84 percent of Republicans, 57 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of voters not affiliated with either party — deemed the current immigration situation at the southern U.S. border a crisis. Many respondents (54 percent) blame Biden administration policies for current immigration problems, while only 37 percent place blame on Trump-era policies.
  • On Tuesday, world leaders gathered for the start of the high-level week at the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Pressing issues on the agenda included climate change, the pandemic and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. According to a Pew poll, most Americans (59 percent) see the U.N. in a favorable light. Europeans are also largely upbeat on the U.N., with majorities across all nine of the European countries polled feeling favorable toward the organization. Additionally, the U.N.’s response to climate change is mostly favorable around the world. A median of 56 percent of people across the 17 countries surveyed thought the U.N. was doing a good job handling climate change.

Biden approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,3 45.8 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 48.7 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -2.9 points). At this time last week, 45.9 percent approved and 48.6 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -2.6 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 48.5 percent and a disapproval rating of 45.9 percent (a net approval rating of +2.5 points).

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot,4 Democrats currently lead Republicans by 2.7 percentage points (44.4 percent to 41.8 percent, respectively). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 2.6 points (43.8 percent to 41.2 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats over Republicans by 2.9 points (43.8 percent to 40.9 percent).


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Footnotes

  1. The CSU operates only in the state of Bavaria.

  2. In rare cases, a party can win one or two single-member seats to make it into parliament, but it would not be eligible to gain proportional representation based on its party-preference vote share.

  3. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

  4. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Mackenzie Wilkes is a politics intern at FiveThirtyEight.

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