The Establishment of the Important Election

Last Updated: 14 May 2023
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Notable Harvard political scientist V.O. Key, Jr. wrote the 1955 article "A Theory of Critical Elections" that established the critical election or realignment theory. This basically consists of the premise that patterns and swings exist in election results from a period of time and this leads to change in the political system. To this day, political scientists still debate and attack this premise in articles and books, disputing such an effect or impact from elections and even add to the discussion yet ultimately not bringing the discussion forward. Thus they help leave Key's original theory as to whether electoral patterns matter open to more discussion and examination, making Key, as with other works of his, still relevant to the discussion of voting trends and elections.

Angie Maxwell and Todd G. Shields, the editors of the 2011 book of a series of essays on Key's impact related to Southern politics, Unlocking V.O. Key Jr., Southern Elections in the Twenty-First Century, referred to Key and his article in the introduction and then referenced several authors that tried to challenge and add to Key's original theory. In contributor Bryan E.

Shafer's introduction, the respect for Key and the challenge to his theory is easy to tell as he states, "The acolytes and the master stood in a very different relationship with regard to his seminal contributions to electoral change." Key suggested the alignments, and thus coalitions were apt to change due to different election results affecting party cleavage. (Shafer X) A testament to the seminal value and contribution that Key provided in the area of electoral change and political science in general, comes from the fact that even in disagreement, challenges came after Key wrote his book and after his death.

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This chain of and progression descending from the classic Key article deserves far more in depth analysis beyond the introduction at the beginning of a book that mentions his acolytes that disagreed with and attacked his theory. Yet, no further examination occurs in exploring those disagreements beyond the authors and their books. Regional coverage in the South by Key in his seminal work Southern Politics provides a small part of the puzzle, as does New England and the election of 1928 in "A Theory of Critical Elections." The arguments carried out elsewhere shape more discussion and thoughts about his original contribution on a national scene, as party realignment does not conform only to regional politics. It plays a role in examining and understanding results and political structure in other places and on a national scale as well.

After Key, the legacy continued in many areas of politics, adding weight and importance to his original, beginning contribution. Starting with Angus Campbell, Phillip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller and Donald E. Stokes in The American Voter in 1960, the major change in agreement and contribution thought wise according to Bryan Shafer came from two books; first, Walter Dean Burnham's Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (1970) and James L. Sundquist's Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States (1973).

However, "A Theory of Critical Elections," spurred as well a further work of his, "Secular Realignment and the Party System" from the Journal of Politics in 1959. A further legacy from his paper went another direction with this article, focusing on partisan change, since according he did not live to see the contributions of Burnham and Sundquist. Shafer elaborates in the introduction that Key had "moved on to the more general concept of partisan change, arguing that it was always under way and often consequential, thereby making electoral realignments into the extreme end of his preferred focus." Basically, Key moved towards admitting gradual change as opposed to his original theory and stating that electoral shifts went back and forth in an abrupt manner depending on results among a mass-based electorate. (Shafer X)

In two ways, Key established a legacy from his 1955 article, from further work in his lifetime related to the topic of critical elections, and beyond in other works after his death that explored his original idea and not the extended work four years after the starting theory. From "Secular Realignment" came an attempt to address Key's two contributions of the late 1950s, The End of Realignment? Interpreting American Electoral Eras, edited by Shafer, who also contributed one article, in 1991, and then specifically the partisan change aspect of realignment from David Mayhew in 2002, Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre, notable given Mayhew was the last doctoral student of Key's. (Shafer X)

Several years before Key's death in 1963, Campbell, Converse, Miller and Stokes' The American Voter addressed and cited Key's "A Theory of Critical Elections." In the course of discussing the electorate and their voting choices, the final section and chapter on "Electoral Decision," the authors delve into the different types of elections; maintaining, deviating, and finally from Key, realigning. Maintaining requires the reflection of attitudes, deviating requires a reversal of attitudes in a distinct party advantage, and finally the realigning elections from Key, which according to the four states that "popular feeling associated with politics is sufficiently intense that the basic partisan commitments of a political electorate change." Basically, loyalty can happen but not often in enough of a direction to matter. (Campbell 530-34).

They suggest that more needs to occur in order to measure and figure from the effect of elections, namely relating to Key since he anticipated the change in the latter because of the former, the example of comparing the 1928 Hoover-Smith and FDR in the 1930s in New England. (Campbell 534). The assessment at the time of writing remained incomplete, devoid of emotional and other attitudes and the distinct advantage required of the definition of either maintaining and deviated elections. Hence their conclusion that even in other elections, such as 1948 and 1952, but referring back to 1928 and not 1932, even with 1928 presaging 1932 according to Key, no critical realignment happened. (Campbell 538)

A decade later, Walter Burnham assessed and addressed the topic of critical elections from 1955, but not the secular realignment from the 1959 article, and the specific argument of a coalitional change that abruptly occurs among the electorate. This also addressed Elmer Eric Schattschneider and his 1960 work The Semisovereign People, stating that long term realignment and electoral change is shifted by voting behavior and shift in policy among other key factors. David Mayhew would later attack the critical and secular, and the conclusion of Burnham as not good enough in 2002's Electoral Realignments. Burnham looked at stable behavior, yet also one that produced short-lived change, the basics of an electoral life cycle. This required a look at parties as serving a wide based range of interests, leading to coalitions, and thus represented the mass electorate and not changes in policy.

Burnham describes critical realignment as happening in four phases. First, certain issues, come about in constituencies that are not addressed quick enough, usually due to socioeconomic tensions. Next, third parties come into existence to address what the major parties do not see or deal with, leading to diversity of ideology among the major parties. Those major parties seek a compromise, a solution, to hold off the threat.

Then finally, policy changes as part of the solution, a response to the electorate, This sets up Burnham to conclude that changes from the center of parties to address the left and right, from protest movements outside the party in relation to short-term problems, carry more importance long-term rather than the previous thought within critical elections of a more abrupt, short term change. Internal coalitions among the major parties come together to address and respond to changes to prevent short term problems from growing in order to have long term lasting power, that is policy wise and electorally holding off the threat of third parties.

James Sundquist, in Dynamics of the Party System, adds the growth of interest groups and their influence when examining the role of parties and the electorate relating to Key's theory on critical elections and realignment in his 1982 revised edition of the original work from 1973. Sundquist extends on Burnham concerning third parties, how they come into existence and play into major elections, such as 1980 with John Anderson. Updating the 1973 edition, Sundquist extends his original conclusion with the update on elections in the interim, the third party effect, and with issues forcing attention and accommodation; this strengthens the party system for the future. (Sundquist 1-20, 376-451)

A second branch of influence from Key's article derives from his next work to attempt to address critical theory, somewhat shifting from his original thought in his 1959 article "Secular Realignment and the Party System." In "Secular Realignment," Key provided an ethnic based look at electoral change that suggested that due to results from certain, specific electorates, alignment happened back and forth and more abruptly. Addressing both Key and then Burnham's analysis and also his look at Schattschneider in Critical Elections, David Mayhew concluded that Key's theory of critical as well as secular realignment did not completely address electoral change over a period of time or even in the short run.

In 2002's Electoral Realignments, Mayhew argues that the difference between critical and secular can both not be critical or deviating, but even with a lasting effect, one cannot know until down the road how the attitudes of a vote affects change and realignment. Shifting of allegiance and the response by voting seems to fall under and happen in periods or eras, again long-term, end up being more secular, but ultimately confusing to distinguish between critical and secular because of this. Pace of change can reflect shifting attitudes, but ultimately you cannot know this immediately. Ultimately, realignment according to Mayhew is one phase of change and those critical elections "are episodes in most realignments; they do not define a type." (Mayhew 11-12)

Overall, Mayhew attacks 11 claims about realignment in arguing and closing Key, Burnham and others by stating that a gradual change represents the impact of election results and dismissing Burnham's punctuated equilibrium model and the coordinated tipping point that he addressed and wanted to replace from Critical Elections. Mayhew proceeds to consider the claims either poor or not valid using 1860, 1896, and 1932, which either Key or Burnham referred to in their works. First, the argument for the gradual model comes from how some elections realign, some do not, and in general, partisan change goes through highs and lows in terms of effect. Next, defining a pattern, especially one of 30 years, does not solve anything short or long term, again the pattern must stretch longer to measure effect.

The realignment model goes too far back in use to explain a change in direction in terms of party identity. Certain realigning elections that are referred to in the literature did not necessarily have a huge turnout. Short-term events can work better to demonstrate change in voting attitudes, and ideological shift with realignment does not lead to polarization. Clarity does not exist as to whether or not realigning elections are local or national, realignment does not always lead to a change in policy or result in redistribution, happens in some but not others. Finally, changes result in major government policy change, yet this is more gradual and spread out. (Mayhew 14-27).

In a newer version published two years later, Mayhew addressed other claims, first, "Electoral realignments bring on long ps of unified party control of the government-that is, of the House, Senate, and presidency; such ps are a precondition of major policy innovation." He argues this diminishes the longer the party stays in control. (Mayhew 28) Second, "Electoral realignments are distinctively associated with "redistributive" policies," dismissed as not being important to the realignment cycles with any effect. (Mayhew 28)

Next point addressed concerns the heart of Burnham, "The American voting public expresses itself effectively and consequentially during electoral realignments, but not otherwise," as Mayhew criticizes the categorization of change that happens once every generation. He proceeds to quote from Key and 1896 and 1928-36 as having an impact, Sundquist and Schattschneider speak to it somewhat, yet it states more "that voters could not or did not do anything effective or consequential after that time for a third of a century." (Mayhew 29-30) This means they immediate have an impact, but not beyond and worthy of note or consequence. Finally, Mayhew attacks Burnham and Schattschenider over the election of 1896 and the claims of rewarding the business sector and holding off pressure from voters. (Mayhew 30-32).

Before Mayhew, Bryan Shafer in The End of Realignment?: Interpreting American Electoral Eras, sets out to paint a different picture of realignment than Key in presenting a different examination of the incomplete and complete periods from previous scholarship. (Shafer 5) First he points out that partisan, secular behavior shifts can be noted by scholars, attacking Key and then Chambers/Burnham, later cited by Funston in his attempt to use critical elections to start the examination of voting behavior of justices, and Burnham and Sundquist, basically saying realignments are not the clear cut thing to look at anymore. (Shafer 3) Shafer also states that in the contributing articles that Key provided on realignment in the 1950s, his focus on certain elections, eras and trends were not so prescient of what ultimately happened, not taking into account other trends or events. (Shafer 26)

He also seems to suggest that Key's legacy after the works incompletely and inconsequently addressed the topic, leaving open many questions and giving them only so much credit for contributing original thoughts. The start of the focus on elections and realignments starts with Key and "A Theory of Critical Elections," suggesting Hal Bass as doing not enough to chart the progression of Key and beyond; which Shafer would eventually do in Unlocking V.O. Key. Shafer cites Angus Campbell in Chapter 4 of Elections and Political Order and taking realignments in an exclusive, small window of different types of elections as the first to take Key further, not mentioning "Secular Realignment."

Then he mentions Burnham and Sundquist continuing the legacy and others in deeper, specific regional looks at election results and whether those realigned or not. Overall, Shafer's intent along with other contributors is to fill in the gaps that were skirted around and not dealt with by Key and those who added to the theory of realignment. The prevailing theory of Key's of shifts in political voting behavior in eras and periods based on certain elections up until 1991, as it still is today, is the prevailing model of thought. It helps lead into Mayhew in giving a different explanation, with the gaps and what had originally been left out at the time, in his ultimate attack on Key's work on first critical and then coming around to secular realignment in the mid to late 1950s.

V.O. Key's work on critical and secular realignment gets attention from Burnham and Sundquist, as Burnham also addresses Schattschneider in his work. Mayhew, in criticizing both realignment works, circuitously adds to the legacy by attacking Key somewhat, and then those works of Burnham, Sundquist and Schattschneider in a generational sense that adds to both original contributions.

In The Supreme Court and Critical Elections, Richard Funston in the section Electoral Realignment and the Party System mentions and uses Key, as well as Campbell et al., Sundquist and Burnham, main and other works of theirs in relation to the hypothesis that the Supreme Court pays attention to election results in shaping future case decisions. (Funston 797). First, Campbell et al., and party identity's effect on behavior and the three types of elections they mentioned sets up the Social Research Center classification that Funston uses to determine that realignment phases can apply to seeing a pattern in the Supreme Court voting behavior. As Funston puts it, "we shall be able to test the Dahl-Dooley thesis that the Court is never too long out of line with the dominant political coalition, except during transitional periods, which we shall identify as realignment periods." (Funston 798)

Burnham, along with William Nisbet Chambers addressed national party systems in a separate work from Critical Elections, helping Funston examine voter influence separate from his intent to see it from the perspective of making the law. (Funston 798) He ultimately concludes that he is not sure if the country is in a realignment phase, or what the effect of such would be. Though citing the main contributors of critical election/realignment/electoral change, Funston's article gives a disjointed and not complete contribution to Key, resulting in being somewhat yet not completely useful in the legacy. (Funston 800) It is important in helping to analyze Supreme Court voting behavior, yet it is only part of contributing and adding to Key, as it does use the contributors, but does not pertain any further to elections, unless a shift in electoral change directly affected a case.

In his book, Critical Elections and Congressional Policy Making, David W. Brady does come closer to tying and referring V.O. Key outside of elections than Funston and the Supreme Court while talking about the New Deal. Part of Key's "A Theory of Critical Elections," dealt with the influence of the 1928 election on results in the 1930s, as his examination of congressional results in New England from the 1920s up to the early 1930s lead him to conclude that Key's focus on 1928 as a realigning election, a shift in change, "may have unduly influenced by his New England sample." (Brady 95).

Brady later agrees with Key, after agreeing with Fiorina that factors do affect critical elections, about what he says concerning the voter's responses of yes or no go along with the party in control. (Brady 166) Yet as a testament to the original theory and contribution, one of many by V.O. Key, the classic article maintains an ultimate, continuing legacy of discussion and disagreement, adding to and shaping the understanding of electoral change and election results and how both relate to each other.

The first phase of direct influence from "A Theory of Critical Elections" and the resulting analysis and addressing the original contribution on realignment and electoral change, gets a boost from the same response to "Secular Realignment and the Party System," as Mayhew's chief dismissal of both Key and Burnham also involves Sundquist and Campbell et al. This creates a dual legacy with both articles already a testament to V.O. Key's influence, yet together with one in response to the other. It is also a legacy of respect for Key and his scholarship that with the importance and relevance of critical elections, realignment and electoral change, that other political scientists will examine and continue to argue in the near future.

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The Establishment of the Important Election. (2023, May 14). Retrieved from

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