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A problem or situation that causes an argument between different political parties, often in an attempt to gain an advantage. It didn't take too long before the issue of property taxes turned into a political football for the candidates.
An issue or topic that is so controversial that it would immediately damage or destroy one's political career or credibility. An allusion to the electrified rail that powers electric railway systems, its figurative sense is almost exclusively used in relation to politics. Primarily heard in US. I wouldn't even bring it up—trying to withdraw people's social security benefits has long been the third rail of politics. Any talk of dismantling or reforming the current healthcare system has been a political third rail for the last two decades or so.
Fig. an issue that becomes politically divisive; a problem that doesn't get solved because the politics of the issue get in the way. The question of campaign contributions has become a political football. All the politicians who accept questionable money are pointing fingers at each other.
Something that is dangerous to tamper with, as in Anything concerning veterans is a political third rail. This term alludes to the rail that supplies the high voltage powering an electric train, so called since 1918. On the other hand, grab hold of the third rail means "become energized." Both shifts from the original meaning date from the late 1900s.