On the evidence so far, Tony Abbott is the most successful opposition leader since Gough Whitlam four decades ago. Certainly Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, John Howard and Kevin Rudd achieved big victories in 1975, 1983, 1996 and 2007 respectively. But all had relatively short periods as opposition leader immediately before becoming prime minister.

Whitlam, on the other hand, became the Labor Party's leader after Harold Holt's huge victory in 1966. He substantially reduced the Coalition's majority when campaigning against John Gorton in 1969 and defeated William McMahon three years later. Whitlam was the first opposition leader since Robert Menzies in the 1940s to lose an election a term before winning one. Abbott may be the third.

It is possible that Julia Gillard can rally Labor before the election and continue as Prime Minister beyond then. However, the only objective evidence suggests it will be a difficult task. According to the most recent polls, the Coalition leads Labor by 56 per cent to 44 per cent (Newspoll) or 54 per cent to 46 per cent (Galaxy Research).

Whatever the accuracy of the polls in indicating what the election outcome might be, existing empirical data should lead to a re-assessment about Abbott among commentators and political operatives alike.

Within the commentariat, David Marr's Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott (Quarterly Essay, Issue 47, 2012) states the prevailing view. It begins: “Australia does not want Tony Abbott; it never has”.

A glance at Marr's first chapter indicates that what upsets the author about the Opposition Leader turns on his perceived social conservatism. There is a reference to Abbott as a “profoundly Catholic man” along with an implication that he still really may be “the homophobe, the blinkered Vatican warrior, the white Australian and the junkyard dog of Parliament” that, according to Marr, Abbott maintains are one-time characteristics of his that are now consigned to the past.

The essential problem with Marr's analysis is this. If Australians do not want Abbott, how come he very nearly became prime minister in August 2010 after winning 49.9 per cent of the two-party vote to Labor's 50.1 per cent? Especially since Gillard was leading Labor at the end of its first term and that no incumbent government had failed to win a second term since the Great Depression in 1931. The political operative Bruce Hawker does not intend to be advising Labor this time around. He is very much a Kevin Rudd loyalist. In an opinion piece at the weekend, however, Hawker came up with the anti-Abbott argument he has put since the member for Warringah was elected Liberal Party leader just over three years ago.

According to Hawker, Abbott is “Labor's biggest asset” since “he remains an unpopular and divisive figure in Australian politics who has managed to typecast himself as a conservative with decidedly mid-20th century values”. Hawker claims that “women are particularly unimpressed with him” and that “young people see him as a throwback to an era before the internet and smartphones transformed our lives”. According to Hawker, Abbott's “appeal lies largely with elderly people”.

This is precisely the line that Hawker ran in 2010. Yet, during that year, Labor was so unnerved by Abbott as to dump Rudd for Gillard. Then Labor only survived as a minority government after it did a deal with two independents (Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor) who came from electorates where the Coalition clearly out-polled Labor in the Senate.

Hawker's mantra that Abbott has a problem with women raises the obvious reflection. If this is so, and the opinion polls are even remotely accurate, then Gillard must have a substantial problem with men. A more likely scenario is that the likes of Marr and Hawker are too subsumed with the opinions of the inner-city men and women with whom they predominantly socialise. Some inner-city commentators in recent years have even acknowledged they do not know any Liberal or National voters.

The evidence suggests that Abbott's principal value to the opposition turns on his appeal to some traditional Labor supporters in suburban and regional Australia, where most of the marginal seats happen to be. Abbott's social conservatism and his Catholicism are exaggerated by the likes of Marr and Hawker. Even so, the Opposition Leader has a certain appeal in parts of socially conservative Australia, not only among Christians but also within Australia's growing Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim communities.

In any event, political success in Australia does not necessarily relate to popularity. Most of our successful leaders have not been beloved. In the last Morgan Gallup poll taken before he became prime minister following the dismissal of Whitlam in November 1975, Fraser had a disapproval rating of 54 per cent – about where Abbott's is today. Yet Fraser led the Coalition to a huge victory in December 1975.

Gerard Henderson is the executive director of The Sydney Institute.