Friday, September 25, 2009

Where to Win the Race – Electoral Incentive Systems in the U.S. and in Germany

To reach out for voters is at the core of a political campaign. Where and when this is done is different in Germany and the US. One reason is of course that in German campaigns much less money is spent. But there are other reasons, too and the one I want to talk about today is a rather strong incentive: the electoral system. The US majority system leads to different campaign styles than the German proportional representation.

A US presidential campaign is strongly focused on battleground/swing states, because a majority in a state usually brings all electoral votes. So it makes sense to invest huge amounts of money to gain the few crucial percentage points in e.g. Florida to win the majority there although the same two percentage points would have been way cheaper in a New England state for example. But in the latter the majority would not have been affected.

In Germany, due to PR, there is no need to invest in a majority in a certain state (except for the CSU, which is campaigning only in one state). So in Germany there are no Battleground states.

Though, this year we had something that comes at least near to battleground states. Prior to the Bundestagswahl there were elections in several states. But not the electoral outcome itself is interesting for the Bundestag election campaigns, as the results do not affect the allocation of the seats in the Bundestag directly. It works rather like the Iowa caucus. A winner there may gain crucial momentum for the campaign. (Jörg Siegmund has written about it.)

But another part of the German electoral system is majoritarian: the district vote. Roughly half of the members of the Bundestag get their ticket through a majority in a district. The incentives here are the same as in the US: the majority wins and thus investment in the last few percentage points is well worth it. At least for the candidates. But parties usually do not really care about who is elected directly because the number of seats a party gains is determined by proportional representation (with the exception of the surplus seats). So in the US there is not only a local, but also a federal interest in district races, because those races affect the majority in congress. That is different in Germany. Typically the major interest is in the share of the proportional vote, not in the district outcome.

But as Jörg Siegmund has pointed out, the surplus seats may be crucial this election. In states where party A has a good chance to win surplus seats, party B has a strong incentive to go for district mandates, as every single district which party B wins, will eliminate one extra (!) seat party A might gain. Here it is: a party incentive for actively supporting a campaign in a certain district. And, as gerrymandering is not (yet) as affluent in Germany as it is in the US, there are quite a lot competitive districts. 70 out of 299 were won with less than a 5 percentage points lead in 2005.

So for German parties within this election it makes perfect sense to work the competitive districts. Perhaps this is the last time around, as the possibility of surplus seats will hopefully have vanished in the next election. The incentives for winning direct seats then remain mainly with the candidates.

But in my eyes it would be a problem if German parties focused only on the proportional vote. A district candidate can be a standard bearer for a party. And as personalization is very effective, there is a high chance that a candidate, who scores a good result for himself, may also boost the electoral outcome for his party. So national parties should invest in district campaigning in some form even without a chance for surplus seats or incentives by the electoral system.

--Matthias Kuhn

No comments:

Post a Comment