Feedback
News

Voters yawn as Obama-style election tactics hit Germany

German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- and her popular necklace -- shakes hands with challenger Peer Steinbrueck prior to a television debate in Berlin on Sept. 1. Germans go to the polls on Sunday. Max Kohr / AFP - Getty Images, file

BERLIN -- Tactics borrowed from Barack Obama's back-to-back election triumphs have taken center stage in the race to become Germany's leader but despite the new focus on social media and door-to-door canvassing it was a piece of jewelry that stole the show.

On Twitter, it was not the Euro crisis or tax issues that were the hot topic during the American-style head-to-head TV debate. Incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel's necklace -- which featured Germany's national colors -- proved to be the night's biggest winner.

In the wake of Obama's success in harnessing social media to power his "get out the vote" operation, the campaigns of Merkel and rival Peer Steinbrueck, 66, adopted similar approaches ahead of Sunday's federal election.

"With admiration for the U.S. system, German parties are increasingly trying to gain voter attention online," said Christoph Bieber, a political scientist from the University of Duisburg-Essen.

However, when compared to last year's Obama vs. Romney showdowns, the German debate failed to set Twitter ablaze.

"We have registered more than 173,000 tweets under #TVduel, a tenfold to what we saw four years ago," Bieber said. "But in comparison to the 7 million tweets in the 2012 U.S. debates, Germany's event was no more than a digital children's birthday party."

Vera Kämper, a social media editor at SPIEGEL ONLINE, said that while Twitter has been embraced by journalists and political analysts, it has yet to take off among the privacy-conscious German public.

"Germany is behind the U.S. in terms of regular users," she said. "Germans always have problems with the idea of controlling their privacy, so that has been an issue for them when it comes to Twitter."

Kämper said the popularity of social media has increased in Germany in the past two years, but the general sluggishness to adopt is reflected in the two main candidates.

"Peer Steinbrueck said he will never tweet, but now he has," Kämper said. "However, his tweets are from his team. He writes a note by hand and then his team tweets a photo of it, unlike Barack Obama, who wrote his own messages during his campaign. The chancellor herself has no Twitter account."

Merkel's posts on other social media, such as Facebook, are generic campaign messages rather than personal ones, she said.

But attitudes are changing, as could be seen in the viral popularity of Merkel's necklace or of Steinbrueck's finger, which now features its own Twitter account.

Steinbrueck's Social Democrats (SPD) also embraced an Obama-style door-to-door campaign strategy. But it hasn't proved as effective as in the U.S.

"When it comes to campaigning at doorstep, there is a strong cultural gap between Germany and the U.S.," said Frank Stauss, a campaign strategist in Berlin, who has advised several SPD politicians in past elections. "Germans are far more protective of their privacy, politics are often a private matter."

The heat is on for Merkel, the country's conservative leader, who was earlier this year placed No. 2 on Forbes' World's Most Powerful People List behind Obama.

While Merkel, 59, enjoys a strong lead in popularity polls ahead of the vote, her win of a third four-year term in office is far from guaranteed. 

Germany's multi-party election system does not provide voters with the option to elect Merkel or Steinbrueck directly and it remains possible that the current chancellor could end up without a job.

Merkel has repeatedly cautioned that the actual election outcome will likely be very tight. "Those who think the election is already in the bag and Merkel will still be chancellor no matter what, might be in for a rude awakening after the polls close," she said during recent election campaign stops.

On Thursday, Stern magazine featured the headline "The Great Trembling -- The election will be dramatic" on its front page. 

Often referred to as "Teflon Angie," Merkel has even made her characteristic steady-hands gesture part of an image campaign that included a gigantic billboard, displaying only her hands in the center of Berlin.

Meanwhile, Steinbrueck has been stumbling from mishap to mishap.

Shortly after his nomination, Steinbrueck complained that German chancellor's nearly $300,000 salary was too low. And in February, he drew anger from Italians by saying "two clowns" had won the Italian election.

This photo released by German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung shows the cover of a magazine supplement depicting Peer Steinbrueck giving the middle finger. Alfred Steffen / AFP - Getty Images

Last week, the candidate triggered widespread criticism after he appeared on the cover of a weekend news magazine making a vulgar, middle-finger gesture.

The picture was part of a photo essay in which interviewees respond non-verbally to questions. Steinbrueck's gesture was his response to the question: "Breakdown Peer, Problem Peer, Peerlusconi - you really don't have to worry about getting any nice nicknames do you?"

Analysts have repeatedly described the German parties' quest for votes as a "dull election race" and a "slow-burning campaign." Britain's Economist magazine even branded one of its report on the election "Descent Into Banality."

"Merkel deliberately chose a quiet, undramatic campaign, a strategy to highlight that things are going well and that voters have no reason to worry under her leadership," campaign strategist Stauss added.

Politicians now hope that the historic low in voter turnout four years ago -- just 70.8 percent -- will not repeat itself in this year's election. But despite heavyweight issues such as the Syria crisis, the NSA scandal and Germany's stalling switch toward renewable energy sources, parties have failed to connect with many voters.

"I am interested in the elections, but I experience the campaigns as extremely faceless," said Soenke Moosmann, a 34-year-old PR manager from Potsdam. "I don't see any topics that will mobilize voters."

A recent survey by German weekly Stern magazine, showed that 72 percent of those polled are "less" or "not at all interested" in the German elections. Among the group of 18 to 29-year-olds, 46 percent even said they did know that federal elections would be taking place in September.

However, among the 34 parties that have been officially admitted to the ballot sheets, Germans can find bizarre options such as the "party of nonvoters," "The Violets," a group that wants to introduce "spiritual politics" and "Die Partei" (The Party), a satirical outlet, which advertises with the slogan "The Beer Decides." Other policies include building a wall around Germany and putting Merkel on trial in a cage.

However, it appears more likely that Merkel will stay in power than end up in court.

"If we take latest opinion polls into account then Merkel could secure a win with her present coalition, but the so-called grand coalition with the rival SPD is also possible -- it is an uncertain situation for all parties," said Michael Weigl, a political analyst at the University of Munich.

NBC News' Alexander Smith contributed to this report. Smith reported from London.

Related: