Eight years ago Angela Merkel stared at the election results with disbelief, when her party crashed to 35.2 per cent of the German vote, seven points below the opinion poll forecast.
Her poll lead melted away again on election day four years later, though her conservatives stayed in power despite their worst result since 1949. Indeed her Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have fallen short of forecasts in the last six elections.
They are leading again as the 22 September vote comes round and victory seems assured, but that humbling record explains why Ms Merkel is not letting up, with 56 campaign stops in the month before voters give their verdict.
The chancellor is warning in her speeches that supporters will have a “rude awakening” if they place too much faith in polls. Once highly accurate, voter surveys in Germany have become a less reliable barometer as voter turnout falls, differences between parties disappear and small newcomers crowd the ballot sheet.
“We’re not making up the drama of this situation,” Hermann Groehe, Ms Merkel’s campaign manager, said yesterday when asked about unreliable polls. “It’s the real situation, and it’s going to be a close race right to the wire. It’s all still very much wide open.”
A trawl through data shows pollsters overestimated the strength of the CDU/CSU in every federal election since 1990. Ms Merkel’s conservatives may have a comfortable 15-point lead over the next biggest party, the Social Democrats, but her centre-right coalition is in a dead heat against three combined left-of-centre parties in some polls, each having about 45 per cent.
She knows that in 2005 nearly a third of voters made up their minds in the final week.
“This will be by far the most difficult German election to predict,” said Wolfgang Gibowski of the University of Potsdam, who co-founded the Electoral Research Group polling institute.
“It’s a huge mistake to think ‘Merkel’s got it sewn up’. There’s a lot of volatility, and the pool of swing voters is larger than ever before. Party programmes are so similar, so it’s easy to see voters changing their minds up to election day.”
That gives sleepless nights to the pollsters, who blame a fickle electorate for their waning reliability. “Our work has become harder because voters don’t have the same close ties to the parties any more,” said Manfred Guellner, managing director of pollster Forsa.
“Voter turnout keeps falling, and that amplifies the impact of these last-minute shifts,” said political scientist Thomas Jaeger at Cologne University, predicting turnout could dip below 70 per cent from 77.7 per cent in 2005.
Another source of uncertainty is two new protest parties on the ballot: both the Pirates, which campaigns for citizens’ rights in the info-technology sphere, and the eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) poll 3 per cent, but may do better than expected.
Due to an intangible embarrassment factor associated with the AfD’s unwanted popularity with the far right, which is ostracised in Germany, the party could get votes from people who are less than candid about their intentions when talking to pollsters.