Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Tied poll shows NDP, Liberals face big challenges

VICTORIA - That whooshing sound you hear is Liberals heaving a sigh of relief about the latest Mustel Group poll.
Gordon Campbell and company were pretty confident last month's disastrous poll didn't reflect reality. That poll found the New Democrats had surged to 45 per cent, while the Liberals had skidded to a dismal 33 per cent.
But it still had to be a relief for Liberals to get the new numbers and see that they had climbed back to 40-per-cent support, just below the New Democrats at 42 per cent.
It's a sign of how tough things have got for the Liberals, elected with such huge support, that poll results that show them in second place are good news.
Pollster Evi Mustel says several things may have worked in the Liberals' favour. The economy is improving, and that is an important factor for many male voters, she says. (The Liberal rebound was almost entirely among men.)
And the last poll, which showed the Liberal plunge, came at the same time as the federal election. The provincial Liberals were criticized from all sides during the campaign. NDP leader Jack Layton blasted the government for tax and spending cuts; federal Liberal David Anderson blamed Campbell's unpopularity for the federal party's problems in B.C.
The good news for the Liberals is that the fallout has stopped.
The bad news is that given the minority government in Ottawa, the B.C. Liberals could once again be tangled up in federal politics as we near next May's provincial election. The Martin government will likely last longer than that, but with each passing month the advance campaigning for the inevitable vote will heat up.
Mustel also says the poll results may indicate that some voters are considering the possibility that the New Democrats might actually win, and shifting back to the Liberals. it's one thing to send a message by electing a strong opposition, they're deciding, and quite another to put the NDP back in office after their recent mismanagement.
Those are the fears NDP leader Carole James is supposed to be quelling, with mixed success so far. The party's poll standings represent a remarkable recovery, given that Mustel had them as low as 13 per cent in the months following the election.
But James has yet to make an impression on 50 per cent of voters, according to the poll. They have no opinion on the job she's doing as NDP leader.
James is generally doing OK with the people who have made up their minds - 57 per cent of decided voters approve of her performance, compared to 36 per cent for Campbell. (Sixty-four per cent think Campbell is doing a bad job.)
But doing OK isn't enough. As the election approaches she has to convince people the New Democrats can be trusted. So far, she's made relatively little progress in increasing the number of people who are confident in her ability.
It all makes for a very volatile situation, says Mustel. Asked for reasons for their choices, and voters are saying they aren't really keen on the party they say they support - they just dislike the other guys more. No party has a large committed core vote, and that means things could change very quickly.
There's one more piece of bad news for the Liberals in this poll. People were asked to pick the one issue they consider most critical, and almost 40 per cent picked health care. Government and the economy were the next closest issues, at 12 per cent each.
Health care hasn't been a strong issue for the Liberals. British Columbians are the least satisfied in Canada with their health care, and their satisfaction has decreased since the Liberals were elected.
The poll establishes one thing. The Liberals and the NDP both have their work cut out for before the election, now only nine months away.
Footnote: The Greens were at 11 per cent, down slightly from last month, Reform at three per cent, Social Credit at one per cent and Unity barely registered. The strength of all those parties and the success of a new unite-the-right movement could decide the election outcome in a number of close ridings.

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