VICTORIA - There's plenty in the most recent poll to scare the pants off strategists for both the New Democrats and the Liberals.
With five months to go before the May election, the two parties are effectively tied with about 43 per cent of the vote each, according to the Ipsos-Reid poll.
That's astonishing, really. The Liberals have lost more support during their first time than most people would have believed possible, and the New Democrats have managed to clamber out of the trash can the voters dumped them in.
But Ipsos offered up a lot more than just the basic polling data this time.
So we learned that 63 per cent of British Columbians don't think Gordon Campbell and the Liberals can be trusted to keep their promises, and about the same number think they balanced the budget on the backs of the poor and vulnerable.
It's not much cheerier for Carole James. About 60 per cent of voters think she and the NDP are too closely tied to unions, and 45 per cent agree that the New Democrats today are really the same as the old regime.
Those are big negatives. But there's more.
Ipsos-Reid asked which party would do a better job on specific issues.
On health care and education the James and the NDP were judged better able to do the job by about 50 per cent of voters - twice the number who thought the Liberals were the best choice. On social services, the gap was even wider. Almost 60 per cent of voters thought the NDP would do a better job; only 18 per cent thought the Liberals would be more competent.
When it came to the economy and managing the government's finances, the situation was reversed. About 50 per cent of those surveyed said the Liberals are more competent; about 22 per cent picked the NDP.
There are other factors, like leadership. Carole James is judged to be doing a better job as opposition leader than Campbell is as premier. But Campbell was selected as the best choice for premier by 48 per cent of decided voters, compared with 35 per cent for James and 18 per cent for Green leader Adriane Carr.
Liberal supporters should be the most worried by the polls.
The New Democrats are scoring highest on their ability to manage the issues people care about the most. In the most recent Mustel Group poll about 45 per cent of British Columbians picked health or education as the top issues facing the province. Only about 25 per cent picked the economy and government. (That could help explain the Liberals' inability to break clear of the NDP despite an improved economy.)
And while James has big issues to confront, around leadership and competence and an ability to govern for all British Columbians, she also has five months to try and win voters over.
Campbell has five months too, of course. But remember that almost two out of three voters don't believe he can be trusted to keep his promises. That's a huge problem for a leader trying to persuade voters that they are wrong, that he is the right person to deliver the services they want.
Another interesting trend is a sharp reduction in the regional divide. The Liberals still lead the NDP in the Lower Mainland, with 46 per cent support compared ti the NDP's 39 per cent. But the gap has narrowed since an Ipsos poll in July.
And the Liberals in turn have gained ground in a big way across the rest of the province, especially in the North where they now lead the NDP comfortably. (Ipsos defines the North as Williams Lake and above.)
It all points to a closer election than expected, a ferocious campaign and a bid advantage for the party that does the best job of persuading campaign workers and voters to show up.
Footnote: The poll put a simple proposition to voters - that British Columbia can’t afford another four years of Liberal or NDP government. Almost exactly half the voters agreed with assertion. But 12 per cent - one in eight British Columbians - said the province couldn't afford four years under either of the parties.