Ronald Reagan and Kiwi PM Helen Clark are an odd pair, but they’ve actually got something significant in common. Both were elected despite poor personal approval ratings. As was Margaret Thatcher. And John Major, in 1992, in the face of virtually every forecast.

With polls and polling in the news, we should take a look at the impact of approval ratings of leaders on voting. It’s negligible. Leadership only becomes an issue when leaders mismanage other issues – or manage to make themselves the issue.

Take the Jeffmeister, back in 1999. Everyone thought he was going to win. Then the big boofhead did his “I’m just going to sit back and drink my tea” interview. Bang. Jeff was the issue. That, combined with the impression of impregnability he’d created, did him in. Voters risked a protest vote. Too many voters for Jeff to survive. Or Hewson from 1993, when he got tangled up over the details of GST treatment of a cake. Suddenly you had a leader who seemed not to understand the details of his own policy – so what sort of leader was he?

It seems clear nowadays that up to a third of voters don’t make up their minds how to vote until the very last moment. When they do decide, it’s because of simple messages. The economy. National security. We all know that Howard looked lousy in the lead up to the polls in 2001 and 2004. And we all know that the little rodent is still there, and that where much of the poll contradiction that seems to be causing such a stoush at the moment stems from. Polls are a snapshot in time – the time they were taken. They’re not a forecast. But if it’s a forecast you’re after, here’s one.

The economy and national security will be key issues in 12 months time when we’re going to the polls. Labor will hope IR is up there, too. And what are these likely to mean for leadership?

John Howard has his fingers firmly crossed that economic and security trends continue to play into his hands. If they do, his government will be returned – not because of his personal popularity, but because of the way he has managed these issues.

And Kim Beazley must hope that Labor’s IR plans don’t create an all-in brawl between unions and business, between unionised and non-union workers because then he may look like a captive of special interests – because it then may be that a policy issue has become a leadership issue and made him look weak and unable to lead.

That’s when leadership matters. Not in this week’s polls.