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bruce anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National's "At Issue" panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians in the past, but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.

Dog whistle. Wedge. Third rail. Hot button.

Chances are good that we'll hear these phrases a lot this election year.

There are three pretty powerful national political parties, all skilled and competitive, and driven to succeed. For strategists, it's always tempting to indulge in some measure of this kind of campaigning. Why?

While nobody starts out wanting to "win ugly," almost everybody prefers winning ugly to losing. Compromises get made. Maybe just a quick detour on the low road…

But the biggest reason politicians deploy these strategies has to do with the declining attentiveness to politics and slumping voter turnout.

There's a great irony in this: the more divisive politics become, the more average people want to turn away. The more people drift away from politics, the more campaigners tend to do whatever they can to attract attention, stimulate support and improve turnout.

Injecting or putting a focus on controversial wedge issues is usually meant to rally and mobilize your core voters, plus ideally cause divisions and discomfort among your opponents.

Guns, religion, race, abortion and gay rights are all examples of topics that can arouse profound reactions and cause schisms. Among some, climate change, carbon taxes, terrorism, First Nations, marijuana and the 1 per cent/99 per cent debate can as well. No doubt we'll see flare-ups about some of these issues in the weeks and months ahead.

Wedge-issue campaigning has been going on for decades. And certainly by every party, at one point or another. The NDP used to campaign to nationalize banks, but it's hard to imagine that they actually would have done so if they had won an election. They were looking to tap into the anger of a relatively small slice of the population, and give them a reason to turn out and mark a ballot for the orange team.

In 2004, the Liberals said a Conservative win would lead to privatize health care, and stoked fears of other "hidden agenda" perils. The Reform Party at one point mused about whether it was time for leaders not from Quebec. The Conservatives have tried to market "reefer madness" style fears about what a Canada under Justin Trudeau would look like.

But in 2015, the savviest strategists in each party might hesitate to inject wedge issue tactics in their game plan for 2015.

They know that voters have had a bellyful of manufactured drama – politicians getting hot and bothered about issues that shouldn't be at or near the top of the agenda.

For one reason, the audience can spot the manipulation. It's like a magic trick when the audience has figured out how the illusion is done: not only is it not entertaining, it's awkward and embarrassing. At best, voters might just ignore you, because they know the tactic is not serious, just a game.

But the bigger reason to hesitate is the risk of starting a hazardous chain reaction, one that gets outside your control quickly. When you use a controversial issue to rally your base, there is a greater risk of also hardening and energizing your opponents too.

There are highly skilled and experienced campaign teams all across the spectrum, people who know how to turn a wedge attack aimed against them into an opportunity to raise money and ire and generate a backlash.

The late U.S. politician Adlai Stevenson (who twice failed in presidential bids against Dwight Eisenhower) said, almost 60 years ago, "the hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning."

It would be naïve to suggest that we're in for a new golden age of only positive campaigning. But a pretty fair case can be made that voters are noticing and responding well to high-road campaigning, which reveals how fed up they are with the opposite.

And the smartest campaigners know that wedge issues are becoming less like a magic potion for electoral success, and more like nitroglycerine: a choice that could go pretty badly, if fumbled.

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