The German CDU needs a new party leader after Chancellor Angela Merkel announced today that she will step down come December. Even before the announcement was official, names were floated in Berlin and beyond. Friedrich Merz, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Jens Spahn have thrown their hat in the ring. Count on more candidates to step forward, while others may well withdraw. After all, the CDU has a strong tradition of sorting out these kind of things in backroom deals rather than drawing them out in broad daylight (looking at you, SPD!)
But where should the party look for a replacement for Ms. Merkel? One way to think about this is in terms of the political preferences of the party’s supporters. The below figure shows the distribution of preferences of those respondents to a 2017 post-election survey who said that they feel a particular strong attachment to the CDU. In other words, these are CDU partisans. Note that this group is more narrowly defined than that of CDU voters and that not every CDU partisan is necessarily a CDU voter at every election. The data come from the German Longitudinal Election Study.
Turns out CDU partisans are about as centrist as can be. And while an argument could be made that a party leader should be a person that pulls or pushes the party into a new direction, the political reality of mass parties suggests that a successful leader is a moderator rather than an innovator.
Who, then, is the most centrist of the three candidates that are known so far? Clearly, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Friedrich Merz is too conservative on both a societal and and an economic dimension. Jens Spahn, on the other hand, has mainly positioned himself as a conservative critic on the societal dimension. Both candidates should not be able to trump the centrist Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, especially not if they are both upholding their candidacies, thus drawing on the same support base. Let’s wait till early December when the party has to make its final decision.