PORTLAND – Comparisons of Maine’s gubernatorial race to that of 1994, when independent Angus King defeated Democrat Joe Brennan and Republican Susan Collins, have suggested that, since King was competitive almost from the start, any candidate not near the lead today cannot win.

From searing personal experience, I know this to be dead wrong. This hypothesis overvalues candidates’ personalities in comparison to the electoral mood, thus missing the common thread in three modern Maine election upsets.

The history of electoral volatility in Maine in 1974, 1992 and 1994 teaches that this campaign can be won by any current candidate with an adequate television budget.

Unsurprisingly, electoral volatility is not predictable. The lesson is to recognize and heed the early tremors.

As Mark Twain observed, history may not repeat itself, but it frequently rhymes.

In 1974, Jim Longley doubled his voter support in the last five days to defeat Democrat George Mitchell and Republican Jim Erwin and become Maine’s first independent governor. (I ran Mitchell’s campaign.)

Mitchell was brilliant, humble and hard-working, defeating six primary opponents, and ran a smart campaign.

Erwin, a fiscal conservative and social moderate, had barely lost to incumbent Ken Curtis in 1970.

Longley, a Lewiston insurance broker and former Democrat disillusioned with both parties, advocated budget cutting. Polls in July showed Longley at 11 percent, with Erwin well ahead of Mitchell.

These facts, however, ignore the volatile atmosphere of 1974, just as some fail to consider the volatile atmosphere of 2010.

By November 1974, America had endured a wrenching decade.

Vietnam had cost 50,000 American lives; anti-war protests had riven our society. Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, igniting racial unrest.

The economy suffered a post-Vietnam recession.

The nation’s confidence in institutions and leaders weakened further with the Senate Watergate hearings, and President Nixon’s impeachment and resignation on Aug. 8, 1974. Citizen disillusionment rose to modern highs.

Compare this environment to today’s. Nine years after Sept. 11, 2001, we continue to fight our longest, most expensive war; anti-war sentiment runs high. Fear and religious bigotry are common political tools.

In the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, unemployment hovers near 9 percent, with 78 percent of the recently unemployed being adult males, a universal prescription for unrest.

The Wall Street collapse of 2008, the taxpayer bailout of failing banks and of GM and Chrysler shredded the credibility of economic and political leaders.

The “tea party” now surfs a wave of anger that has drowned incumbents nationwide.

This year clearly is not 1974, but one may readily discern Twain’s predicted similarity of meter and rhyme.

In 1974, Mitchell had moved ahead of Erwin by mid-October. The Maine Sunday Telegram commissioned a final poll, contacting voters until the Thursday before Election Day.

On that Thursday, the normally Republican Bangor Daily News endorsed Jim Longley.

The endorsement triggered defections from Erwin to Longley, giving alienated voters a viable alternative. On Sunday, the Maine Sunday Telegram poll, concluded before the Bangor endorsement, predicted an “easy” Mitchell victory: 38 percent Mitchell, 25 percent Erwin, 20 percent Longley.

On Tuesday, Maine’s voters elected Jim Longley with 40 percent to Mitchell’s 37 percent and Erwin’s 22 percent.

Maine voters also dumped the Republican legislative majority and four-term 1st District Rep. Peter Kyros, a Democrat. Nationally, the wave elected a record number of non-incumbents at all levels.

In 1992, Ross Perot’s quirky candidacy against Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush attracted attention because of Perot’s charts.

Perot eventually won 18 percent of the vote because he articulated the anxiety spawned by another recession and trade and immigration policies.

But Perot won more votes in Maine than Kennebunkport’s own President Bush, making this the only state in which he came in second.

In 1994, Angus King also bypassed the Democratic gubernatorial primary to run as an independent.

King then rode the same anti-status quo wave that elected 54 new Republican congressmen. The wave was revealed only late in the campaign, coincident with Newt Gingrich’s announcement of the “Contract with America.”

Even more than in 1974, 1992 and 1994, the signs of electoral volatility in 2010 are abundantly clear.

As recently as last Tuesday’s primaries, status quo candidates fell nationwide to unheralded challengers.

This history should also teach us that, especially in years of electoral volatility, we should focus not on predictions of political victories, but on the capabilities of candidates to win the changes the public so clearly desires.