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The Insiders: When to not bother going negative

Inside the Liberal war room, we are told, there is much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over whether to go negative on Stephen Harper with a barrage of ads.

Well, they can stop the wringing and gnashing and relax - it's already too late.

Research tells us that the majority of voters know how they feel about Stephen Harper. He has near-universal name recognition.   

It's the reason why the Conservatives are having so much difficulty moving the PM to 40% in voter intention polls. It's also why all of the opposition rhetoric about corruption and contempt for democracy is falling flat. Voters have largely made up their minds about the Conservative leader.

Michael Ignatieff on the other hand? Quite a different story. People are still forming an opinion. The "Just Visiting" and "Coalition" ads have been effective because Canadians are largely unsure about the Liberal leader and what he stands for.

That's the key: comparative ads only work when voters aren't sure what to think. They don't persuade as much as they crystallize the vague notions that are floating around in back of people's minds.

It worked in Ontario in 1995. Voters didn't know what to think about Liberal leader Lyn McLeod. The Ontario PCs helped fill in the blanks, portraying McLeod as a weathervane, swinging back and forth on the key issues.

In 1999, voters had never heard of Dalton McGuinty. Our ads told them the new Liberal leader was "just not up to the job." Once again, voters agreed.

In the current federal campaign, I'm afraid all the Liberal angst about going negative is for naught. That ship sailed a long time ago.

So, what do the Liberals have to do now? Ignatieff needs to highlight differences between him and the opposition.

One way to do so is by renewing their focus on health care. This is a policy area the Liberals view quite differently from Conservatives. Canadians regularly tell pollsters that healthcare is among their top priorities.

If Liberals can own this issue they may be able to gain ground on the Conservatives.