In a presidential election set in an alternate 2008, Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) is a lovable loser from Texico, New Mexico, who is coasting through life and has not had a single political thought in his head, while being coaxed by his eight-year-old daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) to take more of a serious approach to life. Molly runs the household and sees an opportunity on election day to energize her father: frustrated with her father's apathy toward voting, she sneaks into her local polling place and tries to vote on behalf of Bud. However, due to the voting machines being unplugged, the ballot is registered, but no decision is indicated on which candidate gets the vote. The entire election comes down to this one man and, namely, Bud's vote. Neither candidate has a majority in the electoral college without New Mexico's electoral votes. The popular vote is tied for the two major candidates in New Mexico, leaving Bud to decide the next President of the United States. Bud gets wooed by candidates from both sides: the incumbent Republican, Andrew Carington Boone (Kelsey Grammer), and his campaign manager, Martin Fox (Stanley Tucci); and the opposing Democrat, Vermont Senator Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) and his campaign manager Art Crumb (Nathan Lane).
Bud's actual opinions (or lack thereof) are misinterpreted by the media, causing the candidates to flip-flop on several positions (the Democrats take a prolife and anti-illegal immigration stand, while the Republicans take a pro-environmental and pro-gay marriage stand). As the film progresses, however, the two candidates are shown to move away from the cynical tactics forced on them by their advisers, and both gain Bud's respect. In the end, he chooses to hold a final debate the day before he is set to recast his ballot. In a written speech, he confesses that he knows little to nothing about politics, or for that matter, life, and decides to ask questions people have sent to him in the mail. The film ends with Bud casting his vote, though for whom he voted is never revealed.
Swing Vote was shot primarily in Albuquerque and Belen, New Mexico. Although not intended as a political statement on the upcoming presidential elections, when Kevin Costner found he could not get the financing he wanted for Swing Vote to get it into theaters in time for the 2008 presidential election, he bankrolled it himself.
Joshua Michael Stern, who directed and co-wrote the script with Jason Richman, had earlier precedents to follow. The premise of the film is similar to an Isaac Asimov story "Franchise", in which elections have evolved until the entire decision is based on one man chosen by Multivac. The premise of Garson Kanin’s 1939 movie The Great Man Votes is also very similar to Swing Vote. A 1966 episode of the TV series F Troop, "The Ballot of Corporal Agarn", uses the same basic storyline.
As appearing in screen credits (main roles identified):Kevin Costner as Ernest "Bud" Johnson
Madeline Carroll as Molly Johnson, Bud's daughter
Paula Patton as Kate Madison, news reporter
Kelsey Grammer as President Andrew "Andy" Boone, Republican incumbent
Dennis Hopper as Donald "Don" Greenleaf, Democratic candidate
Nathan Lane as Arthur "Art" Crumb, Greenleaf's campaign manager
Stanley Tucci as Martin "Marty" Fox, Boone's campaign manager
George Lopez as John Sweeney, TV station manager
Judge Reinhold as Walter, co-worker
Chip Esten as Lewis
Mare Winningham as Larissa Johnson
Mark Moses as Attorney General Wyatt
Nana Visitor as Galena Greenleaf
Dale O'Malley as Hank Johnson, Bud's brother
Aaron Brown, Campbell Brown, Mary Hart, Arianna Huffington, James Carville, Larry King, Bill Maher, Chris Matthews, Willie Nelson, Lawrence O'Donnell, and Richard Petty appear as themselves (mainly in cameos).
Reaction from critics centered on Costner's performance. One characterized it as "unsentimental", but handled "with such ease and conviction" that it anchors the film. Roger Ebert noted that in building the premise, "the movie makes a plucky stab at explaining how it comes to happen – and it almost sounds plausible." He gave it three stars, saying that a "mix of comedy and drama is winning; Costner couldn't be better, and the little girl is a find." Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle also gave it favorable reviews. However, Richard Roeper was quoted as saying, "Not a bad movie, probably OK to rent on DVD, but I'm saying don't rush to the theaters."
The film's reception has been mixed. Rotten Tomatoes reported that 38% of critics gave it positive reviews based on 145 reviews, and it holds a 47% mixed to average approval rating on Metacritic. The Times of the UK ranked Swing Vote no. 14 on its list of the 100 Worst Films of 2008.
The film grossed $16,289,867 domestically and $1,344,446 overseas totaling $17,634,313 worldwide. On its opening weekend, the film grossed $6,230,669, placing it #6.
After release, a controversy arose when Dennis Hopper complained about his role being cut; in a series of interviews, he claimed, "I got cut out of that movie".
Bradley Blakeman, a former deputy assistant for appointments and scheduling to President George W. Bush, filed a lawsuit on August 7, 2008, stating that he gave Kelsey Grammer a copyrighted screenplay titled Go November in 2006. The lawsuit, filed at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Long Island, New York, is against Grammer, Kevin Costner (co-financier), The Walt Disney Company (owner of the film rights), Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group Inc. (production company), and Touchstone Pictures (distributor), and claims that the plot and marketing elements of Swing Vote were stolen from him. The case was eventually settled for $10.00 after the judge dismissed his other claims against Costner and Disney.
The film was released by Touchstone Home Entertainment on DVD and Blu-ray Disc on January 13, 2009.