Centrist Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is pulling ahead in the CDU leadership contest. Here is why.

With one week to go until the CDU party convention in Hamburg, the German Christian Democrats are looking more energized than they did in a long time. As the party is gearing up to elect a new leader after Chancellor Merkel’s late-October announcement to step down as the CDU’s chairwoman, the three frontrunners in the contest to succeed her have been touring the country and presenting themselves to rank-and-file party members. The leadership contest has already reinvigorated the discourse in a political party that — historically — has seen little necessity for debate as long as the chancellory was reliably in Christian Democratic hands. (The CDU had to check their party by-laws to figure out how to handle a candidacy of more than two candidates — something that had never happened before in the party’s 73 year history).

New polling data released today show that the party’s newly-found enthusiasm translates into increased voter support — the CDU was polling 2 percent better than two weeks ago. The data also show that among CDU supporters, a plurality of 48 percent now favor centrist Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as new party leader, up two percentage points from two weeks ago. Right-of-center Jens Spahn, the current minister of health, took a big hit, with only 2 percent of CDU supporters now preferring him as party chairman. Support for Friedrich Merz, who stands for more market-friendly economic policies but has also come under fire for his suggestion to abandon the individual right to asylum enshrined in the German constitution, has increased by 4 percent to 35 percent among CDU supporters.

The strong showing of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (or AKK as she is know in Germany) is in line with the centrist preferences of CDU 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. On the other hand, CDU partisans are not necessarily members of the party who will elect the new party chairperson next week in Hamburg. However, their opinions matter for the leadership contest since they are indicative of broader support for the CDU under alternative leaders. The data come from the German Longitudinal Election Study.

Preferences of CDU partisans (“I feel close to the CDU”) on two dimension

CDU partisans are about as centrist as can be, with an ever-so slight tendency to the center-right on both a state-market (economic) dimension and on an open-closed (societal) dimension. The party leader that is most in line with these preferences is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. And while it is alway possible that party members vote for a chairperson who will give them a new direction, the political reality of mass parties in modern democracies suggests that a successful leader is a moderator rather than an innovator. For the CDU, this is particularly true if AKK as a party leader could retain the chancellory for the party; a likely feat, given the thoroughly centrist preferences of the German electorate as a whole.

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