To precocious twelve-year-old Molly Johnson (an impeccable Madeline Carroll), voting is not only an optimistic privilege but it’s also an American citizen’s “civic duty.” However, to Molly’s under-achieving father whom — for the zero parenting he offers — she fittingly calls Bud (Kevin Costner), voting in America simply risks the chance that you’ll wind up on the fast track for jury duty. Unfortunately for Bud, along with making the family budget and packing his daily lunch, Molly registered her father to cast his vote, aligning him as a political “independent” since she proclaims that “the two-party system neglects the working poor.”
While Lou Dobbs would no doubt beam with pride, Bud struggles to make sense of his daughter. This is especially the case when — in equal fascination of the electoral process as well as her tie-in school project — Molly reveals that she took the trouble to fill in her parental political questionnaire for Bud because she wanted to make him “sound smart.” Despite his protests and canned statements that voting is useless, Molly demands that her father meet her at the polling place after school with a peck on the cheek and a warning to Bud, namely, “screw this up and I’m leaving you.”
And while Molly has a fruitful day delivering a beautifully worded political essay and ends up on the news after local Texico, New Mexico reporter Kate Madison (Paula Patton) decides to feature it in the evening broadcast, Bud’s prospects that day are far less successful. With incriminating footage that depicts Bud ruining more of the eggs than he’s able to neatly package in the plant where he works — not to mention the fact Bud hasn’t punched in on time in six months and proceeded to take thirty-one sick days — before he’s officially laid off, his boss and former high school friend asks him to give him one good reason not to let him go. Foreshadowing his inability to make a decision which will propel the rest of Swing Vote's plot, needless to say Bud can’t offer him any explanations.
Later, predictably forgetting his promise to Molly until it’s nearly too late, Election Day ends on a far stranger note after a bizarre computer error concerning Bud’s vote makes the results of the day — already in a deadlock for the presidency — all boil down to whom Bud will vote for ten days later when, by oath, he swears he must recast his vote. Literally holding the fate of the government in his hands as his vote will decide which candidate earns swing state New Mexico’s five electoral votes and ensures him the presidency, Bud is overwhelmed by the media reaction as every major outlet from MTV to CNN to the BBC sets up a stakeout right outside his trailer. And just as quickly, political organizations start flooding into the tiny town that — before the gaffe — had been so inconsequential it wasn’t even on the state map.
However, the story really heats up when both candidates journey out to try and win over Bud by any means necessary. Pulling out all the stops and White House goodie bags he can carry, the first of the two competing front-runners, the favored Republican incumbent President Andrew Boone (a pitch-perfect Kelsey Grammar) arrives in Texico complete with the aptly named Martin Fox, his amoral strategist, in tow (Stanley Tucci). Also vying for Bud’s ear — or rather his vote — the earthy Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper), who along with his campaign manager Art Crumb (Nathan Lane) promises a racially blind, all inclusive “rainbow” White House, pack up their “Truth Train” and “Operation Real Deal” to make the long trek to the desert. Although the Dems learn that — while they can’t even begin to compete with Air Force One — their secret weapon is none other than Willie Nelson, who was the subject of a tribute band that Bud had played in before his rhythm section ended up in the slammer.
In an effort to better understand Bud, the candidates and their smarmy managers resort to shameless pandering, insincere flattery, and manipulation, including letting the dimwitted, perpetual beer drinker win at poker or using cue cards to make small talk with Bud about fishing. Most memorably, this results in a wonderfully hilarious speech by Grammar likening his role as commander-in-chief to that of a quarterback, breaking foreign policy down with the aid of football terminology. Grammar nails every scene he’s in and nobody plays a buffoon or the prototypical blue collar American male quite like Kevin Costner, although he’s essentially recycling the far more likable characterizations he crafted in Bull Durham and Tin Cup.