For an American, you end up comparing the US and German political systems. There are a number of things that work differently.
First, elections in Germany are split between state episodes and the national episode. The sixteen German states run their own scheduling system on individual state elections. It never happens on a particular day....except to say it will occur on a Sunday. Germans will tell you that this odd scheduling allows for pressure on the national election.
Let's say in 2012, there are two state elections schedule, and one of them is in Bavaria. Let's also say that the party that runs things in Bavaria presently....loses badly....then it has an impact on national politics. News analysts will say that the pendulum has shifted, and the national election needs to occur earlier than expected.
Second, the actual affect of state-run elections? It tends to say how badly the party running the Bundestag is really doing. In most cases, it runs along the decades-long expected results, and no one really gets that excited by state-run results. They do tend to be covered to some degree by the national media and it'll be a full-hour of chat on Channel One or Channel Two....trying to get you excited over something that may not be worth talking about.
Third, the party is the one that you are paying attention to....not the candidate. There's some meetings that occur about a year out from election. The party will meet over a weekend.....with a couple hundred party members, and they hear speeches from the various guys who say they have the ability to bring in votes. On Sunday afternoon, a ballot will be issued and folks vote. The guy representing the party....either at the state-level or national-level....will then be decided.
What makes this pick important? A guy or gal has to really be able to stand on their feet and talk. They need to give a four-star speech each and every time. They need to be able to answer most questions given to them by the moderators, and talk without screwups. In essence, Germans are demanding a candidate who cannot be an idiot who simply makes good speeches (like Hitler, yes).
Fourth, the election tends to run along the lines of public speeches and TV appearances. In the heat of an election season, which rarely lasts more than 90 days prior to the election day.....there will be a bus tour of sorts, that runs through some region. Somewhere in the center of a walk-platz....a stand will be put up with speakers and the bus will pull up with the candidate getting off with their entourage. A thirty-minute speech will occur, and then they shake hands with the public for a while....jump on the bus, and head off to location number two.
Fifth, huge sums of money donated by the public or PACs? Well....no. Money tends to be funneled to the party apparatus, which has an accountant and stays fairly legal. There aren't huge sums of money spent on TV ads or on fancy-pants experts. A German national election and a US national election....just won't compare, in terms of money tossed around.
Sixth, the power of pictures. You tend to notice as election season heats up in your region....thousands of posters put up on walls around villages, towns and cities. Some will just have the party symbol and a slogan, and that's it. The bigger parties will all have personalized posters, with the local party guy of the state, or the local party guy running for mayor, or the national party gal running for Chancellor.
The posters are always in rich full color, with the candidate mostly grinning but not showing their teeth. Reason? Well....in small towns.....kids tend to walk around with markers, and blacken the teeth of a candidate's poster....making them look like an idiot. It took me a while to realize why a slight grin was better than an entire smile with teeth.
Seventh, topics of a campaign? Well....in national elections....it's a ninety percent chance that it'll revolve around economics, taxation reform, and pension reform. National defense is rarely ever made into a big deal, and corruption is not a big topic that folks get excited about.
Local topics? Infrastructure discussions over more bridges or improved roads is always popular. Attracting new business into the region will be popular. Stomping down on crime might pop up occasionally with a promise to bring more police into the local area.
Eighth? As the weeks dwindle down on a national election.....the Sunday night political chat show will typically turn into this make-or-break moment. You need to get some big points out of an appearance on this show, and really demonstrate your ability to argue points.
Ninth, you tend to notice after a while that some folks make great candidates but lousy government officials. Some candidates ought to be permanent election hosts and simply represent their party....never working a day at an actual real job. The opposite can be true as well....with lousy speakers ending up being very efficient administrators.
Tenth and final.....it is entirely possible to run through an election, and vote up an individual for chancellor....who looks and acts like a Chancellor....but is a lousy leader. Most Germans will point out Gerhard Schroeder as this example. After one term as Chancellor....most folks were putting him in fairly negative numbers. As the last week or two came down....there was one singular topic that Gerhard stomped upon....the US and the impending march into Iraq....which tended to upset a fair number of voters. So the election came with Gerhard winning....and within seven days....the regular poll numbers indicated that more than fifty percent of Germans were greatly dissatisfied with Gerhard's performance. Within a month....the German sentiment was that another election would absolutely be necessary.....the sooner....the better.
For an American, there are bits and pieces out of the German system that you might tend to appreciate. The problem is....things work this way in Germany for a reason, and I seriously doubt that you could carve off pieces and make the same ideas work in the US.