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An initial glance at an electoral district map showing which parties emerged victorious on Sunday reveals a common pattern: District after district is shaded in the familiar colors of black, signifying Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, red for the Social Democrats (SPD) and violet for the Left Party. But in the east, there are also scattered patches of light blue, the color used to denote the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD). And those patches bear witness to the epochal shift that Germany's political party landscape has experienced. The success of the right-wing populists becomes even more obvious if you take a look at a similar map showing the parties that came in second in each district.

The AfD easily beat out the Greens, the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and the Left Party to become the third largest party in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament. Its nationwide total was 12.6 percent, but it received more votes than any other party in the state of Saxony, where it ended up with 27 percent of the vote. Across all of eastern Germany, including what used to be East Berlin, the party received 21.5 percent of the vote according to the pollsters at Infratest dimap, putting it in second place in the region behind Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), who garnered 26 percent of votes.

Where did the party's voters come from? According to calculations performed after polls closed on Sunday, 1.47 million non-voters cast their first-ever ballot for the AfD, a statistic which also helps explain the increase in Election Day turnout, from 72.4 percent in 2013 to 76.2 percent on Sunday. In addition, 1 million people who had traditionally voted for the CDU or its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), decided to support the right-wing populists. The center-left Social Democrats lost 500,000 voters to the AfD while the far-left Left Party saw 400,000 defections.

Voter migration

Other parties also profited from the weakness of Merkel's conservatives. Around one-third of the votes received by the FDP came from voters who supported the CDU or CSU in the past. In addition to 1.6 million disappointed (or strategically minded) CDU voters, the FDP also managed to poach 550,000 votes from Merkel's junior coalition partner, the SPD. The FDP was able to attract the second-largest number of non-voters (830,000).

The FDP is often accused of presenting itself as the party for those who earn higher than average salaries. And on Sunday, the party was certainly successful among that segment of the electorate, winning a particularly large number of votes in areas where private households tend to have higher incomes.

Who do the rich and the poor vote for?

Assets, per capita GDP and voting behavior

Reading the graphic: The higher available household income is in a certain electoral district, the more votes were received by the FDP. Or: The more cars that are registered in a certain district, the more likely voters were to choose the CDU/CSU.

Whereas the Greens proved their ability anew to win over voters in large cities, the CDU and CSU were once again unsuccessful in attracting urban residents. The more densely an electoral district is populated, the worse the Christian Democrats tended to do.

How did the different age groups vote? According to an analysis performed by the pollsters at Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, most AfD voters come from the 30-to-44 and the 45-to-59 age groups. The other three smaller parties – the FDP, the Greens and the Left Party – tend to attract younger voters below the age of 30 and those in the 30-to-44 demographic.

AfD received the most votes among voters aged 33 to 44

Forschungsgruppe Wahlen for ZDF

Numerous past studies (article in German) have sought to determine whether the AfD is a party for lower wage earners or whether – as AfD lead candidate Alice Weidel recently claimed – it counts many academics and higher wage earners among its supporters. An analysis of votes cast on Sundayseems to contradict Weidel's claim.

Voting behavior by education

Forschungsgruppe Wahlen for ZDF

The greatest segment of AfD voters have a school-leaving certificate from an intermediate-level high school (17 percent), with the second-largest group made up of voters who completed vocational high school (14 percent). Among the four smaller parties with representation in German parliament, the AfD has the highest share in both groups. Only 7 percent of university graduates cast their ballots for the AfD – the lowest value when compared to the FDP, the Left Party and the Greens. From an occupational perspective, the greatest share of AfD voters are workers (19 percent) with the second-largest group comprised of the self-employed (12 percent). By comparison, 10 percent of workers chose the Left Party, with 24 percent opting for the SPD.

AfD strong among workers

Forschungsgruppe Wahlen for ZDF

Regarding workers: The SPD focused its campaign squarely on increasing social justice. But 80 percent of German citizens said that the party failed to indicate exactly what it intended to do to achieve that goal. Only 38 percent trusted the SPD to guarantee social justice. The Left Party, meanwhile, established a new high-water mark for the party on this issue, reaching 16 percent. The party scored particularly well in electoral districts with high levels of unemployment. The election results clearly show: Social Democrats – traditionally the party of the working class – can no longer rely on the working-class vote.

When we look at the voting behavior of men and women, a significant difference emerges among conservative voters: A significantly higher share of women voted for the chancellor's party. Among AfD supporters, the trend is reversed, with male voters dominating.

Who do men and women vote for?

Forschungsgruppe Wahlen for ZDF

The difference in electoral patterns between the genders is particularly evident in eastern Germany. According to an Infratest dimap analysis assembled for German public broadcaster ARD, 26 percent of men in eastern Germany voted for the AfD, whereas 17 percent of women in the region did the same.

German public broadcaster ZDF, meanwhile, asked voters to identify what they see as the most important problems facing Germany. Forty-four percent of respondents said refugees and foreigners, a factor that may have helped the AfD given the party's focus on such issues throughout the campaign. But only 13 percent believe the AfD is capable of solving problems pertaining to the refugee issue. Conservatives scored much better on the issue, with 35 percent of respondents saying they trusted the CDU/CSU on refugee issues. Only 15 percent said they trusted the SPD. Fully 67 percent of voters who defected from the CDU/CSU in this election agreed in a postelection survey performed by Infratest dimap with the statement: "On refugee policy, the CDU disregards people's concerns."

Never before were so many German voters undecided on the eve of the election as they were this year. At the end of August, almost half of all voters still hadn't decided which party to support (article in German). Pollsters say that late-deciders made more of a difference for left-leaning parties (SPD, Greens and Left Party) and for the FDP. Results among late-deciders for these parties tended to be a few percentage points higher than their overall results. By contrast, only 25 percent of late-deciders opted for the conservatives – and only 10 percent of late-deciders chose the AfD, perhaps indicating that the party's electorate decided early on to support the right-wing populists. The party's provocative headline-grabbing in the days immediately prior to the election, in any case, didn't seem to win over additional voters.

Find more ZEIT ONLINE articles in English here.

An overview of the election results (in German):

  • Stimmverteilung
  • Gewinne & Verluste
  • Koalitions­rechner


Translated by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey.