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polling analysis

With British Columbia having passed the halfway point of the 2013 election campaign, two forces are clearly at play as voters ponder what the next government might look like: Fear and change.

Elections can be won on fear. In 2004, Republican George W. Bush won a second term as U.S. president with a campaign that raised doubts about the ability of Democratic rival John Kerry to handle terrorism. Mr. Bush's reassuring speeches were aided by a steady stream of negative ads, including some that questioned Mr. Kerry's record as a soldier.

The B.C. Liberals have focused on the 1990s to describe how an NDP government would handle finances. The strategy seems to be galvanizing their base. When we asked decided B.C. Liberal voters to allocate a percentage to each one of six factors that may determine their support for the party, the highest number, 30 per cent, was given to "fear of a different party forming the government."

Elections can also be won on change. Many colourful characters have taken hold of the hopes and dreams of voters. Barack Obama's victory in the 2008 U.S. presidential election comes to mind, as does Vicente Fox's 2000 win in Mexico, which ended 71 years of single-party rule.

B.C.'s NDP supporters allocate 26 per cent of their voting decision on "the chance to topple the government," slightly below policies (28 per cent). Still, as Mr. Obama and Mr. Fox found out, change can become unfeasible when governing begins. Their respective promises of universal health care and a corruption-free administration never materialized. The NDP has been cautious, as exemplified by the use of the word "practical" in campaign leaflets and posters.

While fear and change are moving B.C. voters in opposite directions, an emotional connection with the leaders is lacking. While only 14 per cent of voters are undecided, the proportion of respondents who cannot select any of the four party leaders for the top political job has grown to 37 per cent. This means a quarter of voters who have already chosen a party do not see its leader as "premier material."

The way the two main leaders score on specific characteristics would suggest that the NDP has been more successful in tempering expectations. Across B.C., 37 per cent of respondents have "complete confidence" or "some confidence" in Liberal Leader Christy Clark to handle the economy. NDP Leader Adrian Dix scores 36 per cent on this question. This is the kind of indicator on which Gordon Campbell used to have an overwhelming advantage over Carole James in 2009.

On the other traits tested, Ms. Clark is clearly behind. While 40 per cent of respondents think Mr. Dix would put the interests of people first, rather than lobbyists, businesses or unions, only 28 per cent feel the same way about Ms. Clark. Mr. Dix is also regarded as more likely to keep promises (37 per cent to 25 per cent) and more likely to tell the truth and be honest (35 per cent to 29 per cent).

Ethics and accountability have played a bigger role in this campaign than in any one since 2001. And although the theme has been the cornerstone of two negative ad campaigns by the Liberals, they have not gained momentum by placing emphasis on Mr. Dix's behaviour. As scandals go, British Columbians are more troubled by the trespasses of the Liberals.

We asked British Columbians about four issues to determine whether they matter to them. Half of respondents (51 per cent) say they care about Mr. Dix backdating a memorandum when he was chief of staff to premier Glen Clark in the 1990s, and a smaller proportion (44 per cent) think Mr. Dix riding public transit without a valid ticket matters to them.

These numbers would typically trouble political organizers, until they are compared with the perceptions of the Liberal government. Two thirds of British Columbians say the implementation of the HST and the decision to pay $6-million in legal fees for two men who pleaded guilty to providing insider information to interested parties in the sale of BC Rail are issues that matter to them. It would seem that British Columbians are more forgiving on personal matters, and less indulgent on decisions that affect their pocketbooks, either directly or indirectly.

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