On September 24th, Germany is voting in a national election. Much has been written about Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz, the candidates running for next German chancellor. However, German voters don’t elect their chancellor directly, instead they vote for a new parliament – with hundreds of local candidates.

As an experiment, we took a closer look at several hundred personal statements from candidates using automated text analysis. Here we present five themes that came up recurrently throughout our analysis.

Theme #1: labor and unemployment

The theme mentioned most is labor. This includes wages, working conditions, pensions, and unemployment benefits. Below are the candidates that mentioned these topics particularly often in their statements. The brighter the candidates’ names are highlighted, the more their statement speaks about this particular topic.

Interestingly, the 25 candidates that rank highest in this theme all run for Germany’s left-wing populist party Die Linke. Martin Schulz’s social democratic party SPD ranks a far second – signalling a decrease in the importance given to labor-related topics within the SPD. SPD was historically a workers’ party, but shifted towards more economically liberal positions in the early 2000s.

About the data

This analysis is based on data collected by non-partisan parliament transparency initiative abgeordnetenwatch.de, who asked all candidates in the 2017 federal election for personal statements. About 600 candidates actually provided a statement, which we ran through automated text analysis to determine the main themes the candidates mentioned in their statements.

The result is slightly distorted, because less candidates from Angela Merkel’s Party CDU provided statements than candidates from other parties. To ensure that we still cover the most well-known candidates, we have included additional personal statements from the parties’ top candidates that were collected by dpa-infocom for Google.

Candidates avoid controversial topics

What we have learned: When speaking for themselves, candidates seem to steer clear of controversies. Controversial topics that are very present in public debate, such as immigration, taxes, and foreign politics were mentioned relatively rarely. In addition to labor and unemployment, the candidates’ main themes are the environment, digital policies, families, and democracy.

Theme #2: the environment

Sustainable agriculture, protecting the climate, transitioning away from fossil fuels...environmental topics are almost as present in candidates’ statements as labor and unemployment. From a campaign perspective this is interesting: A recent poll by infratest-dimap shows that other topics, such as education, social justice, and the fight against terrorism, are much more important to German voters. Unsurprisingly, however, environmental topics are particularly important to Green party candidates.

Theme #3: the digital

“Digital First. Doubts Second” – this is one of the claims the liberal party FDP is using in election posters across the country. And indeed, FDP candidates heavily focus on digital policy topics: Fast internet access across the country, digitization in schools and in the workspace.

Far-right party AfD has also found their special niche in digital policy: the fight for free speech online. AfD candidate Andreas Paul strongly opposes the new German anti-hate speech law  (“Netzwerkdurchdringungsgesetz”), which he considers to be online state censorship.

Theme #4: families

Families – this is a topic that seems to be equally important for all parties. Individual positions, however, can be very different. For example, while SPD candidate Uta Strewe is in favor of free nursery care, many CDU candidates want to raise child care subsidies, which can be an incentive for parents to take care of their kids at home.

Theme #5: democracy and Europe

Topics such as democracy and the European Union are particular important for independent candidates, the AfD, and the Pirate Party. This theme is particularly broad and covers very different positions. While AfD top candidate Alexander Gauland writes about preserving the rule of law and the constitution, the statement by Thomas Ney of the Pirate Party is all about civil rights, digital privacy, and a transparent state. Interestingly, there is also an overlap between the social liberal Pirate Party and far-right party AfD: Both are in favor of more direct democracy.

How we analyzed the data

We analyzed the candidate’s personal statements using a script that automatically groups terms that appear together. The theme ”environment” includes words such as “sustainability”, “ecologic”, or “energy transition”. The higher the rate of these terms in a statement, the higher the statement ranks for that theme. With this technique, we extracted five themes that occurred particularly often. Based on this, however, we can not draw conclusions on the political position a certain candidate has, only that the statement focuses on a certain theme.

To learn more, you can click a candidate’s name to read the full statement at abgeordnetenwatch.de. For data nerds: We used NMF to extract themes and Tf-idf to figure out how important a theme is within an individual statement.

All candidates in one graphic

As an additional experiment, we tried to visualize all themes and all candidates in a single graphic. Again, for data nerds: We used the t‑SNE algorithm to bring all dimensions of the analysis into a single two-dimensional space. Within this cloud, candidates are displayed closer to each other if their statements contain similar topics.

Independent Journalism