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Students at the University of Guelph hold a vote mob prior to a campaign stop by Tory Leader Stephen Harper on April 4, 2011.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

In simpler times, political parties aimed at broad swaths of the population. Tailoring a message for women voters or blue-collar workers was considered the height of sophistication. But the new thinking suggests that's a waste of time and money. Why examine broad categories when you can narrow your message to the five per cent of people you really need to sway?

What the parties are starting to do instead is called "micro-targeting," aiming their policies and messages at narrow bands of the population to shift just enough votes to win. The Conservatives are by far the most sophisticated in Canada at this technique, which tries to understand population in new ways. They use market research data on buying habits and combine it with census data, internal polling and focus groups to shape their campaign's direction and rhetoric.

This tactical shift has contributed to significant Conservative gains in 2006 and 2008. It also explains why their policy announcements have been relatively small-scale and focused.

Environics Analytics, a market-research company that specializes in demographic segmentation, has broken down one British Columbia riding to demonstrate how this kind of targeting works.

Surrey North, one of the Globe's 50 ridings to watch, is a suburban community home to the kind of "working families" politicians love to lionize. It's more than 50 per cent visible minority, which means it's also the kind of "very ethnic" riding, as a leaked strategy document put it, the Conservatives say is key to winning a majority government.

The NDP won Surrey North by 6,000 votes in 2006, but in 2008 Conservative Dona Cadman reversed that result to win by a little more than 1,000 votes. The NDP have a strong candidate this time in Jasbir Sandhu, and the race is too close to call.

It could come down to the political ground game. In a close race the party that can identify potential supporters, find the right policies and message to motivate them to vote and then get them to the polls on election day is halfway to victory.

Environics Analytics' Prizm segmentation system breaks the Canadian population down into 66 types. These types, which are narrower, more sophisticated versions of composites such as the soccer mom or NASCAR dad, are based on a host of factors, from where you live to what you buy and what you believe.

They assign one dominant type to each census division area, which are very closely aligned to Elections Canada poll divisions, taking as a given that people who live nearby tend to have similar profiles.

The dominant group in Surrey North, at 43 per cent, is what Environics identifies as fairly well-off, blue collar ,South Asian families, both Canadian-born and immigrant. They're more likely to have large households and to speak a non-official language at home. Let's call them Aspirasians.

In the 2008 election, 10 per cent of this group's votes shifted toward the Conservatives, mostly at the expense of the NDP. That meant a gain of 1,600 votes for the Conservatives, and a loss of 1,300 votes for the NDP. The Conservatives gained a little less than 1,000 votes from two of the next largest groups, Canadian Tirekickers, mostly white exurban families, and Rust Collars, a low-income, mobile, working-class population.

Those swing votes are the difference between winning and losing. On the map it looks as though the riding changed hands because the northern part of the riding, dominated by suburban families and the working-class groups, went majority Conservative. But it was narrowing the gap in the South Asian that made the biggest difference.

What the Conservatives did, starting in the 2006 campaign, was combine their internal polling data with market research to develop profiles of the voters they thought they could reach. How to reach them is another question. Environics research shows the South Asian group's values tend toward concepts such as "belonging to the global village," an "ecological lifestyle" and "joy of consumption." They are less likely than the average Canadian to identify with a Canadian identity or to have a flexible definition of family.

André Turcotte, a professor of communications at Carleton University who has worked in this field, says the Conservatives likely have a group such as the South Asians broken down into several smaller segments. Those from the Indian Punjab would be separated from those from Vietnam, those who have been here 15 years or less separated from the Canadian-born, as well as stats for those with children or grandparents at home.

It's because they have that kind of data on the ridings they need to win that the Conservatives are employing micro-targeting in their policy platform, Prof. Turcotte said.

Income-splitting for couples with a stay-at-home parent, for example, appeals to young, suburban, traditional families. They tend to live in hotly contested ridings such as those in Surrey and Brampton.

"It definitely benefited Harper in 2006 and 2008. The unanswered question is whether you can do it on a large enough scale to deliver a majority," Prof. Turcotte said.

Jennifer Lees-Marshment, a professor and expert on political marketing, said the idea with micro-targeting is to use party resources more efficiently, but it also means small slices of the electorate become disproportionately significant. "It's supposed to be a more practical and effective use of resources," she said, "but democratically it's problematic because they only bother with a tiny group of voters."

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