I just read an interesting insider report published by the German magazine Der Spiegel about the campaign of the SPD and its top candidate, Martin Schulz. Apparently, Schulz wanted to go on the offense against incumbent chancellor Angela Merkel, but was advised not to so by the party operatives. Apparently, the party had research showing that attacking Merkel would turn off voters. I am flabbergasted, because I really don’t know any political consultant who would advise not to go on the offense in such a situation. As I wrote in my book on challenger campaigns (How to Overcome the Power of Incumbency in Election Campaigns), a challenger basically has to make two points:
A) He has to make the case for change and that the incumbent needs to be replaced
B) He has to make the case that he or she is better than the incumbent
It’s beyond me how one could make either argument without going on the offense. Yes, Schulz was a man running against a woman so he needs to be careful. But nevertheless, the question for me is how to go on the offense, not whether or not to do so. And as the election result shows, there was deep dissatisfaction with Merkel below the surface (which qualitative public opinion research would and should have shown).
Going back to the research the SPD did, I had similar conversations within campaign teams myself. I often use public opinion research in order to find out what voters know, think, feel and want, and to guide the campaign accordingly. Heck, as all politicos, I’m an addict of public opinion research. But we should never ask voters expert questions. Voters will always say that they don’t like negative campaigns, but that doesn’t mean that negative campaigns are not effective – if done properly and in the right tone. After all, an election campaign is about showing differences.