Monday, February 28, 2005

Liberals fare best in poll, but worries for both parties

VICTORIA - The Liberals should be happiest with the latest poll results.
The Mustel Group poll found the Liberals had the support of 46 per cent of decided voters, with the NDP standing at 40 per cent.
It's not a big lead, and pollster Evi Mustel noted that a six-point gap can close very quickly in B.C. politics.
But with less than three months until the election, any lead is good news for the governing party. It is the one getting the closest scrutiny at this stage of the race, and the party in power is most likely to have made voters angry in some way.
That's not the only comfort the Liberals can take. Barely half those surveyed thought Gordon Campbell was doing a poor job as premier.
That may not sound like a great performance rating, but for the last three years Campbell's disapproval rating has been consistently higher. He's still getting failing grades from 51 per cent of British Columbians, but in relative terms that's not so bad.
Which is helpful for the Liberals, who are intent on making Campbell the centrepiece of their campaign despite his personal popularity problems.
The New Democrats can find some comfort in the poll as well. Forty per cent is a solid base for them to build on, and a remarkable comeback when you consider how desperately eager voters were to kick them out four years ago.
And the New Democrats are pleased to see the Green Party stalled at 10 per cent, a level low enough to convince most voters that the Greens won't be a viable alternative in May. (Just as the Liberals are delighted that no right-wing alternative has been able to attract more than token support.)
There's worrying details for both parties in the poll.
NDP leader Carole James continues to be an unknown quantity for most British Columbians. Among people with an opinion, 61 per cent approved of the job James as doing as leader, while 39 per cent disapprove.
But almost half of those surveyed haven't formed an opinion of James' work.
That hasn't been a big problem so far; it may have even helped the New Democrat cause. People weren't in a position to compare the two leaders, so instead they simply judged Campbell. Their views may change when it becomes a choice between two known candidates.
James' fuzzy image, after almost a year, also gives the Liberals a chance to define her in their terms. The Liberals are working hard to paint James as the daughter of the last NDP government, and a captive of the big public sector unions. The longer people go without having formed their own opinion of her competence, the more chance the attacks have of working.
Based on the poll results, an election held today would probably produce a legislature with about 45 Liberals, and 35 New Democrats. (That forecast is confirmed by the UBC Election Stock Market, the only election prediction project that requires participants to stake money on their opinions.)
The election isn't being held today, of course. The poll was taken just before the budget was introduced, to generally positive response. That should produce a boost for the Liberals in the next survey.
But it was also taken before problems in the health system once again became a major issue. The Liberals were criticized for their failure to add any long-term care beds for seniors - they had promised 5,000 by 2006 - and were forced to intervene in the Fraser Health Authority in the face of mounting problems at Surrey Memorial Hospital.
Health is the kind of issue that can produce a big swing in poll results. It is consistently - usually by a three-to-one margin - the most important issue for British Columbians. And it's one that is generally seen as a Liberal weakness.
All of which means that the poll is interesting, but the race is still to be run, and the outcome uncertain.
Footnote: Most of the Liberal gains in this poll came from male voters outside the Lower Mainland, likely because they have seen an improving economy. One-third of Liberal supporters said they favored the party because they prefer its economic policies. One-quarter of NDP supporters said they were onside because they don't like the Liberals.

No comments: