Forget Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, who will really decide the federal election?

The Power Index this week begins to count down the top 10 “election deciders”, the definitive list of influential insiders, flacks and tabloid hacks whose frenzied focus between now and mid-September will be firmly fixed on the race to the Lodge.

For the next four months — and for most of the last three — these committed warriors have awoken every day with one thing on their minds: the struggle for supremacy in Canberra and the strategic interventions that could sway the result.

There were lots of wannabes who didn’t make it, the most obvious being “the voter”: that cartoonish 37-year-old mum working part time in a suburban marginal whose itch to take a baseball bat to to the government’s face must be scratched if Labor has any hope of a third term. But it’s also true that election deciders create their own voters — rolling out ads, running front-page jihads, threatening “damaging” public campaigns and reaching for the chequebook in a bid to mould minds.

So which wheelers and dealers, headkickers and head honchos, silver tongues and message masseuses are looming large? We’ll keep the identities of the individuals secret for now, but these are the key categories in which our election deciders furrow their ploughs …

The pollsters: Once an arcane tool for wonks to deftly manage seat dynamics, polling has now outstripped its roots to become a narrative in itself. Nearly every week, acres of newsprint (see today’s papers for example) are dedicated to new polls — most within the margin of error of the last one — to the degree that the Australian political media has become global shorthand for shallowness. Minuscule down-ticks are linked to real-life events in a manner that would horrify actual scientists. But, crucially, polls generate their own feedback mechanism — a prolonged bad run can reinforce a sense of hopelessness that compounds negative perceptions. Just ask Gillard.

The commercial TV news directors: The 6pm commercial news bulletins remain the country’s primary source of current affairs, even in the age of iView and cat GIFs. Each night, a significant minority of Australians tune in to have their brains blipped in the direction of what the off-camera news svengalis, with decades of experience, reckon they should be staring at.

The ad men and women: Neil Lawrence was the man behind Kevin ’07’s triumph, but the synapse specialist won’t be popping his head above the parapet again. So who are the top-shelf (and well-paid) creatives jostling to imprint the major parties’ “brands” on the public’s collective cortex?

The corporate lobbyists: As Gillard knows by now, there’s nothing like a vested interest campaign — even a threatened campaign — to set advisers scrambling behind the scenes to avoid the fallout. Whether it’s the big miners bleating about the “sovereign risk” of a minor tax or clubs on the warpath over pokies, there’s little doubt the lobbyists’ Sword of Damocles is dangling ever lower.

The unionists: They made a big impact with the Your Rights at Work campaign and ever since have been trying to recreate the fervour that nudged Kevin Rudd to Kirribilli. But after a comparatively quiet 2010 can they marshal their million-strong army again?

The money men: They’re the men (and they’re mostly men) who control the purse strings, tap the donors and make it “rain” in an election year. But they’re also the donors themselves, the well-heeled mining magnates, business titans and unions who bankroll an estimated $50 million in messaging across the two major parties as September 14 draws near.

The campaign directors: The final word on tactics — and the ones who cop it when the disappointing results pour in; faceless men and women in the backrooms pulling the strings.

The fixers: As the critical link between the parties’ political and campaign arms, these hardened operatives drill their bosses to ensure strategic messaging cuts through. Stuff up or show their hand too early and a leader could go the way of ex-Liberal chief John Hewson, an unsavoury prospect indeed.

The tabloid editors: The afternoon news conference on a metro daily isn’t just an opportunity for junior cadets to be screamed at — it’s also the crucial 30-minute window when the country’s most powerful editors decide on the next day’s splash. Col Allen at The Daily Telegraph used to famously stumble home from lunch and pluck a story off the wires to beat up, but these days tabloid eds see themselves as political actors — chopping heads off, playing favourites, and compounding the pain for enemies who fail to grasp that fighting back will only strengthen the vitriol.

The spinners: They’re the gnarled warriors who wake up each day, pull their camo on and embark on a dirty war to plant the best of their charges and the worst of their enemies on the front page and the national news. No tactic is too low when you’re talking “off the record”.

*The countdown begins tomorrow: how the pollsters influence the mood