The volatile voter of ’10

2010 is the year of the volatile voter.

I have argued for many months against the “Democrats are doomed” pundits and in favor of a “voters are mad at them all” thesis. There is now a second clear trend in 2010: dramatic voter volatility.

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In this year of the volatile voter, we have seen dramatic and sudden voter movements that transform individual campaigns in very different ways, for very different candidates.

In Nevada, Sen. Harry Reid (D) is staging one of the great comebacks of the year in a race that is now a classic toss-up. In Kentucky, Republican Rand Paul won a blockbuster primary victory with a gigantic closing surge of voters.

In Pennsylvania, Rep. Joe Sestak (D) came from far behind with a dramatic surge in the closing weeks of the campaign. In Arkansas, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter forced a Democratic runoff against Sen. Blanche Lincoln with a powerful last-minute surge in the primary.

In the Florida Senate race, Gov. Charlie Crist once looked like a landslide winner in the Republican primary and the general election.

Then a powerful drive by conservative favorite Marco Rubio drove Crist out of the primary. Then Crist turned Independent. Now he is the favorite in November. But Crist and Rubio face a major Republican scandal.

The Rubio movement remains potent. The question remains whether the respected Democratic candidate, Rep. Kendrick Meek, can gain traction.

Will Crist renounce Republican filibusters and publicly state that he will not vote with Republicans to organize the Senate? If so, he becomes the great voice for independent voters in 2010 (with rejoicing in the Senate Democratic cloakroom). If not, he looks like just another political hack, and Meek might make Florida a three-way race.

In the year of the volatile voter the great lesson is that individual candidates can make sudden, dramatic and surprising gains. Campaigns matter. Candidates matter.

In Harry Reid’s case, I have long argued that he is always underestimated. He steered Senate Democrats from 40-something seats to 60-something. He has helped many individual voters in Nevada who are intensely loyal to him. Of his most likely opponents, one of them, Sue Lowden, proposed a ridiculous “chickens for checkups” healthcare plan, while the other, Sharron Angle, is far out on the far right.

In Kentucky, can Rand Paul successfully take his Tea Party message to a majority of voters? So far, he has. Paul faces a very credible Democrat, Attorney General Jack Conway, yet retains a surmountable but significant lead.

For Democrats, the most important battle is today’s runoff in Arkansas. Bill Halter can re-create a winning populist coalition combining a high turnout of the Democratic base with appeal to working-class and independent voters. He can run against the bailout culture and prove the Democratic base can be mobilized, if motivated.

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Campaigns are about individual candidates. Strong candidates can ride the wave or resist the trend. Weak candidates can blow sure things and lose big leads.

This is the year of the volatile voter. Those on the ballot will suffer many sleepless nights until the voters render their verdict. This year the voters are right. Everyone else is wrong.

Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Alexander, then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics. He can be read on The Hill’s Pundits Blog and reached at brentbbi@webtv.net.