The Federal Republic of Germany was founded in 1949 as a strictly representative, parliamentary democracy. Citizen’s participation in political decision-making processes is restricted mainly to voting in elections. Hence, an analysis of voter behavior and its underlying influences, which is committed to the highest scientific standards and aims vis-à-vis description and theory-based explanation, is central to the practice of democratic research. Empirical electoral research provides essential insights into the principles of legitimacy underlying a democratic political system, its functioning mechanisms, and its performance.
In recent decades, German empirical electoral research has compiled a wealth of findings. As a sub-discipline of political science it has attained high theoretical and methodological standards, and enjoys an excellent international reputation. Nevertheless, German electoral research lacks a desideratum of decisive strategic importance: namely, a firmly established, long-term financed German national electoral study. Electoral attitudes and voter behavior in German federal elections have been analyzed on a high scientific level for a number of decades, but these studies have a distinct ad-hoc character from the scientific, organizational, and human resources perspective. This leads to several serious disadvantages:
- There is no guarantee that there will be an electoral study for every German federal election. For every new election, there is the risk that a study of this nature and import might fail to come to fruition.
- Whenever such electoral studies are conducted, this is done ad hoc by a variety of researchers from varying perspectives. Thus the findings are hardly comparable over time. This, in turn, severely impedes the continued observation of societal-political processes.
- In order to obtain the full benefits from electoral studies, they must be made regularly and promptly available to the whole scientific community and also other interested parties from politics and the media. At present, such data normally remains under the exclusive control, over quite a long period of time, of those researchers actually carrying out the investigation.
- Currently, the overall design of electoral studies in Germany is determined by and under complete control of only a few researchers, not even directly involved in the output. This system is not open to input and impetus from the broader scientific community, which means that important innovation potential is left untapped.
These deficits can only be eliminated by institutionalizing German national electoral research, in the sense of establishing a long-term program with organizational support and secured financing, which is accountable to the whole academic electoral research community. This would guarantee high quality electoral research, from the theoretical and methodological perspective, for every federal election. It would produce data that is comparable vis-à-vis former and future studies, which is regularly and quickly available to all interested parties. Such research programs do indeed exist in many other democracies around the world.
In January 2007, German academic electoral researchers seized the initiative to establish a national electoral study, the German Election Study. The German Society for Electoral Studies (DGfW) was officially founded as a self-organized body of German academic electoral researchers, on 20 July 2007. We applied for the entry into the formal registry of associations and recognition as a non-profit organization. The DGfW is at present working on an initial survey in the context of this new institutionalized research program; we hope to carry out this survey during the coming federal elections (presumably autumn 2009). With this first inquiry, we intend to lay the foundations of an empirical political research infrastructure, designed to ensure continuity and to guarantee high quality analyses, yielding specifics on individual elections and long-term trends in political behavior in Germany, which are reliable and state-of-the-art as regards theory and methodology. The DGfW cooperates with comparable research programs in other democratic countries. Thus the German Election Study will become an inherent part of the worldwide edifice of national and internationally comparative electoral studies.