… collects the data for the TV-show “ZDF-Politbarometer”?

Polls are especially popular in election season. Who are the most popular politicians? How happy are citizens with the work of the government? Which topics affect the nation most? What are the citizens’ opinions on the political parties’ performance? Definite results can only be presented on the evening of the elections, when the preliminary official results are available. Until then, election research is in the hands of the pollsters. One of the most well-known institutes in this field is based in Mannheim: the election research group Forschungsgruppe Wahlen.

Forschungsgruppe Wahlenwas officially founded in 1974. Its history, however, dates back to 1965. Back then, empirical election research was still in its infancy in Germany. The top dogs at that time were Emnid (founded in 1945), the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach, Infratest (both founded in 1947) and infas (founded in 1959). Whereas Emnid and the Allensbach Institut around Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann maintained close contact to the conservative political party CDU, Infratest and the founder of infas Klaus Liepelt were closely connected to social-democratic party SPD. When German public television broadcaster ZDF began focussing more on political news coverage in their programming in the mid-1960s, which up until then had been characterised by entertainment shows, an independent partner was sought out and found at Mannheim University in the person of the renowned political scientist Rudolf Wildenmann, who taught and carried out his research there. Since 1965, he supplied ZDF with computer-based election polls and projections. In 1974, however, a break-up occurred—not altogether without conflict; three of his assistants – Manfred Berger, Wolfgang Gibowski and Dieter Roth – then founded the association Forschungsgruppe Wahlenand continued the cooperation with the ZDF on their own.

This cooperation still exists today. The work of this non-profit institution, with Matthias Jung from Speyer has headed up since 1991, has from the very beginning been financed exclusively by public broadcasting funds. In return, ZDF has the advisory expertise of the Forschungsgruppe Wahlenexclusively at its disposal, with regard to election news coverage as well as other TV programmes.

The best-known “product” of this cooperation is the TV-show “ZDF-Politbarometer.” Since 1977, it regularly grants insight into the way Germans feel about certain issues, which — especially in times of upcoming elections —energises fans as well as foes of public opinion research. Whereas some perceive it as an important instrument for objective self-reflection of a given society, others demonise it as an instrument manipulated by the elites for propaganda reasons and for maintaining power. Facing this dilemma, former German chancellor Helmut Kohl from Ludwigshafen addressed the political establishment back in 1993 in a self-critical speech, assessing that there was a “fatal tendency for the misconception that political decisions could be substituted by public opinion research. […] Especially concerning existential issues of a nation, however, political leadership manifests itself in not surrendering to the mood of the moment.”

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