It was once John Howard’s high approval and preferred PM ratings that were going to rescue him in the face of poor opinion poll voting intentions. But recently a new saviour has arrived: the PM’s comfortable lead over Kevin Rudd on Newspoll’s question of which leader is better at handling the economy.

Sol Lebovic, former Newspoll Chairman, has put the view several times, most recently in The Australian yesterday:

History suggests that the winning leader [at elections] has always been at least competitive in the eyes of the electorate on economic management.

Standing alone, that statement is surely true. The economy is the government’s strong suit, and Labor’s weak one. The opposition can’t be seen as hopeless on the economy.

But put indelicately, Labor’s task is not to be perceived as better economic managers – impossible in today’s circumstances – but to be seen as only a little bit iffy. This allows voters to turn their minds to other things – education, health and broadband.

Not everything in life can be represented by numbers. Getting excited about voting intention poll results is reasonable enough, because votes decide elections. But reducing a complex set of community attitudes, no matter how important, to a single question framed by a pollster, and then waving around that data as being determinant, is taking things too far.

For one thing, when a party’s voting intentions go up or down, most of the secondary data – competence on the economy, health, national security etc – tends to follow.

Also, such data doesn’t separate the swinging voters from the rest. Swingers are, after all, the only ones who matter.

And a “who is better?” question does not measure strength of feeling.

Perhaps it would be better phrased along the lines of: “how much (on a scale of one to six) better/worse at handling Australia’s economy do you think Howard/Rudd is?”

Anyway, the historical Newspoll results on this are mixed. John Hewson beat Paul Keating on the measure but still lost the 1993 election, while Howard led Keating on the economy in 1995 before trailing in 1996 but winning that election.

Since taking office, Howard has led on Newspoll’s economy question by increasing amounts, although that lead shrank against Rudd.

With today’s depressing (for the Coalition) Newspoll, Lebovic back-tracks somewhat, implying that Rudd may have turned that corner.

The reason? Howard’s lead on the economic question has narrowed from 15 to 9. (And, as the headline has it, Rudd is “closing gap on [other] key measures”).

Come on Sol, pull that cart back behind that horse. It’s those 58 to 42 voting intentions that have you spooked. All those other numbers, interesting as they are, are secondary.