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British Columbia Liberal leadership candidate Christy Clark makes an announcement at the Capilano Suspension Bridge concerning British Columbia's tourism industry in North Vancouver, British Columbia, Friday, February 18, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
British Columbia Liberal leadership candidate Christy Clark makes an announcement at the Capilano Suspension Bridge concerning British Columbia's tourism industry in North Vancouver, British Columbia, Friday, February 18, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

Clark's lead over BC Liberal leadership rivals shrinks, poll says Add to ...

With the B.C. Liberals set to elect their new leader on Saturday, a new poll says Christy Clark still has the highest level of support among party candidates but her competitors have gained a lot of ground.

The Vision Critical/Angus Reid poll, conducted for The Globe and Mail and CTV, found 67 per cent of respondents who voted for the Liberals in the 2009 provincial election thought Ms. Clark would be a good choice to replace outgoing Premier Gordon Campbell.

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Fifty-one per cent of Liberal respondents said Kevin Falcon would be a good choice, while 46 per cent said the same of George Abbott and Mike de Jong.

While the numbers might across as good news for Ms. Clark's campaign, Mario Canseco, vice-president of communications for Vision Critical/Angus Reid, said that's not necessarily the case.

"There's not a lot of momentum there. Her level amongst B.C. Liberals is roughly the same one that she had in December," Mr. Canseco said in an interview.

"It's the momentum for the other candidates that's really impressive. Kevin Falcon is up by six points among B.C. Liberal respondents. And Abbott and de Jong are up 12 points."

The online poll surveyed 811 B.C. adults who are Angus Reid forum panelists. It was conducted from Feb. 15 to Feb. 17 and has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Amongst all respondents - not just Liberals - Ms. Clark had 42 per cent support, down four points since December. Mr. Abbott moved up five points to 30 per cent, and Mr. de Jong gained three to reach 26 per cent. Mr. Falcon lost one point, dropping to 27 per cent.

The poll also found the governing Liberals have gained ground on the opposition New Democrats since Mr. Campbell announced he would step down.

Mr. Canseco said 41 per cent of respondents said they intended to vote for the Liberals in the next provincial election, compared to 38 per cent for the NDP. However, that three-point gap fell within the poll's margin of error. The December poll had the two parties in a virtual tie at 38 per cent each.

Mr. Canseco said voters who previously appeared ready to leave the Liberals have returned to the party fold since Mr. Campbell - much maligned for his introduction of the harmonized sales tax - said he would resign.

"In the middle of last year, especially after the HST came into place, the retention rate for the Liberals was close to 50 per cent, which is awful. You're basically only holding on to half the voters in the last election," he said, adding the leadership campaign has helped voters reconnect with the party.

Norman Ruff, a political scientist and professor emeritus with the University of Victoria, agreed that Mr. Campbell's impending departure has been a boon for his party.

"It has defused much of the deep hostility towards the Liberals," he said.

In the NDP leadership race, the poll found Mike Farnworth has the highest level of support. Fifty-nine per cent of NDP voters and 42 per cent of all respondents said he would be a good choice to replace Carole James as party leader. Adrian Dix received endorsement from 45 per cent of NDP voters and 27 per cent of all respondents.

"What's interesting about Farnworth is here's a guy who conceivably would be moving the NDP closer to the centre. There's this discussion that this is going to be very detrimental to the NDP, that the base is going to be unhappy," Mr. Canseco said.

"But he's at 59 per cent among NDP voters so I think it's more a question of can this person really lead us to victory even if he might not be as left-wing as we would want."

The NDP will choose their leader on April 17.

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