ALEX Salmond won a landslide victory in last month's election because of "competence not the constitution", a major academic study of the election campaign has concluded.
The Scottish Election Study interviewed voters before and after the 5 May election to analyse their thoughts as they went to the polls.
It showed how Scots were mostly unmoved by opposition claims that an SNP victory would trigger moves towards independence.
Instead, large numbers of Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative-minded supporters put the constitution to one side and supported Mr Salmond's re-election on the basis he had run a competent administration in the four years previously.
SNP campaign chiefs said last night that the report was validation of their campaign in which the record of the first four years of the SNP government was given major prominence. The study found that the largely positive record given by the public to that SNP administration contrasted sharply with peoples' negative views of the government records of the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour.
This held true even though voters said they felt standards in education and law and order had fallen since the SNP came to power in 2007 - both key Scottish Government responsibilities.
But even though many people also said they felt their standards of living had dropped since Mr Salmond came to power, the survey suggested that people do not see the First Minister as being at fault, with the majority of blame landing at the feet of David Cameron and Nick Clegg at Westminster.
Such was the size of the SNP victory in May - which has left it with a majority of seats in Holyrood - that it has now wiped out previous areas of weakness among certain sections of society, the survey also found.
Among Catholics, who have traditionally favoured Labour over the SNP, the Nationalists won 43 per cent of support, compared to Labour's 36 per cent. The SNP's historically below-average appeal to women was also all but cancelled out, while the party also easily won the largest number of working-class voters.
However, with independence ranked as less popular than both the status quo and a more powerful Scottish Parliament, the academics who carried out the study said that their findings did not amount to a rubber stamp for the SNP's flagship policy.
Professor James Mitchell, of Strathclyde University, said: "It was about competence, not the constitution. They won because they were seen to be competent.
"Labour made the mistake of thinking that their vote from the 2010 general election would stay with them. But it is quite clear that people have a different view when it comes to Scottish elections than UK elections.
"What it doesn't tell us is what is going to happen in the independence referendum or the next general election."
That claim was supported by voters' views on independence, which showed support for full secession at 24 per cent, compared with a figure of 38 per cent support both for the status quo and for a more powerful system of devolution.
The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, also showed up the full scale of voter "switching" from last year's general election to this year's Holyrood vote.
Prof Mitchell said that around one third of the one million people who voted for Labour in the 2010 general election had moved to the SNP only a year later.
Contrary to claims immediately after the election, the collapsed Lib Dem vote was actually split between the SNP and Labour, Prof Mitchell added.
It was the findings on voter approval for the SNP which surprised the researchers.
Dr Rob Johns, from the University of Essex, said: "The numbers tell us that people thought the SNP were a competent government. That is relatively rare and people don't usually give a positive write up (after a period in office]."
The Scottish Government had a positive approval rating of 36 per cent going into the election, the survey found. That compared with a negative rating of 12 per cent given to Labour if they had been in government.
An indication of the degree of SNP support emerged in the views of people who identified themselves as "British, not Scottish". Even among this group, 24 per cent backed the Nationalists - more than supported the Conservatives.A further explanation for the SNP's huge win also emerged in a separate question in which people were asked to rank the four main parties in terms of whether they were capable of strong government, united, in touch, and kept their promises. In each count, the SNP came out on top. Even on keeping promises, where the SNP has faced a sustained assault from opponents on breaking election pledges from 2007, 50 per cent of respondents said the SNP had kept its word, compared to just 31 per cent for Labour.
The SNP's campaign organiser, Angus Robertson, said last night: "This study confirms that in May's election the SNP truly was the national party of Scotland representing all parts of the country and supported by all kinds of people, and is increasingly the natural party for Scots voters."
He added: "Voters from all political parties turned to the SNP as the best party to govern, with the best record and the only vision. After four years of successful government, voters put their trust in the SNP to make Scotland better."
The 5 May election saw the SNP win 69 seats, up 23 on their 2007 total. Labour won just 37, down seven, their lowest since 1999.