In the week or so leading up to the latest Newspoll, reported in The Australian today, the good economic news kept flowing. First there was better than expected economic growth (also, as some of the more upmarket media outlets noted, calling into question some of Kevin Rudd’s claims about productivity). Then another record number of jobs was announced. Then the industrial disputes figures were released – not quite a record low, but still much better than just a few years ago.

Yet according to Newspoll while this time last year 67% of voters thought John Howard was best to handle the economy over Kim Beazley, now only 45% think the same about Howard compared to Rudd.

This is looking like a bandwagon effect, where the most important fact is not what is happening in the economy or what Kevin Rudd or (spare us) Wayne Swan is saying, but what the polls tell us. As Timur Kuran’s very interesting Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification shows in many examples, people’s political views are often informed by perceptions of the general mood. Everyone who follows politics even slightly knows Rudd is in fashion, and he is now enjoying the after-effects of his initial boost in the polls. He needed some substance to begin with, even if it was just that he wasn’t Kim Beazley, and after that all Rudd had to do was ride the wave without falling off. His two-party preferred poll results suggest that he is taking almost all but the most rusted-on Liberal supporters, the people who would not vote for him even if he started turning water into wine (or wine into water, which might be more useful).

Interestingly, though, in the questions on attributes of the two leaders (‘decisive and strong’, ‘has a vision for Australia’, ‘understands the major issues’, ‘likeable’, ‘in touch with the voters’ and ‘trustworthy’), where poll respondents did not have to choose between the two leaders, Howard’s readings are much as they have been over the last eighteen months. What we are seeing is Rudd rising more than Howard falling.

Unfortunately, the question on whether the leader is ‘arrogant’ is rarely asked, but Howard on 68% is well above the 43% he recorded way back in March 1998 (though well below the 87% arrogant rating of Paul Keating in November 1995). Though he has been running around the country as if he were already Prime Minister, Rudd is thought arrogant by only 29% of voters. Perhaps it is because he is more capable than the PM of admitting that he made a mistake.