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April 25, 2009

Voters Just Starting to Pay Attention

Passionate political junkies love the nuances of election campaigns. They hang on every word and debate the implications of dead air time during a radio debate or of the effect of endorsements or criticisms from groups that most voters couldn't name.

In the real world where the outcome of the election is determined, most folks are just beginning to notice that there is an election on May 12th. They might give it more attention than the hockey series if advertisements run during the games. It has been that way for as long as I can remember, and I have over 35 years of experience in campaigns, including as a candidate in four provincial campaigns and one federal.

Provincial election campaigns are complex. At the local level a good campaign has a phone bank, enough volunteers to canvass every poll, three or more pamphlets, fact sheets and a candidate who tirelessly knocks on doors, talks to the local media and attends all candidate meetings. Despite all that effort, many voters will say that they are getting all the information they require from the newspapers, radio and TV. That's where the central campaigns attempt to generate "earned" media through the tours of their leaders, the radio and TV debates and most of all with their advertising dollars. The main media campaigns from both major parties, in terms of advertising expenditures, don't shift into high gear until the last two weeks of the campaign.

Claims by some pundits that one side or the other is winning or losing the initial campaign shouldn't be taken seriously as most voters haven't paid attention to what they are talking or writing about. Unless a campaign makes a fatal error, and none have, it is fair to say that the horses have just left the starting gate and the grandstand will watch as they enter the stretch.

We can get an idea of what the rest of the campaign will look like by examining the TV ads both parties are running. They are easy to review because the campaigns make them available on their websites. As of April 25th, eight Liberal ads feature Gordon Campbell talking about a variety of topics: regional hospitals, future generations, education, crime, coming out of the recession and confidence. The ads are not structured so as to deliver a memorable message on any of the particular topics, but a common theme between the ads is Campbell's delivery and the tag end, the Liberal election slogan, "Keep BC Strong". Both the theme and the role of Campbell in the ads relates directly to what pollster Angus Reid reported are the relative strengths of the Liberals.

As of April 25h, there were six NDP ads on its website featuring, through a variety of techniques, the weaknesses of the Liberals. For example, the "eight years is enough" ad talks about a growing crisis in health and the broken promise of beds for seniors. Another ad delivers the message: "The Campbell Liberals: they're even bad for your wallet." It offers examples of freezing the minimum wage and raising fees and Hydro rates. Five of the six NDP ads focus on Campbell, almost as much as the Liberal's ads, but with critical messages regarding the record of his government. The NDP ad on the BC Rail corruption case is featured on the front page of the party's website. It concludes with the campaign theme: "On May 12th, take back your BC."

Both campaigns will roll out new ads over the last two weeks of the campaign. In the absence of a knockout punch in the May 3rd leader's debate, or a more significant error than John van Dongen losing his driver's license due to numerous speeding tickets, the ad wars will play a major role in the balance of the campaign.

Every campaign has both positive and negative ads. As much as people complain about negative ads, parties use them because they work. Since the Liberals ads have been soft until this point in the campaign, letting their allies run the attack ads, watch for negative ads to emerge from the Liberals in the final two weeks of the campaign. The NDP can be expected to focus on messages it believes are most likely to shift undecided and soft voters. The frozen minimum wage, care for seniors and privatization of BC's rivers and other resources are likely to be themes that continue in the NDP ads. Many pundits are wondering whether the NDP has a surprise in reserve that will be pulled out of the hat in the final days of the campaign.

Despite polling results from both the Mustel Group and Ipsos Reid, which show a double digit lead for the Liberals, the finish is likely to be close, as suggested by Angus Reid's poll a month ago. It may come down to which side wins the advertising battle with BC voters. Both sides have a long way to go before seasoned pundits conclude that either party controls the TV airwaves.


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