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Key: A theory of critical elections

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Key. 1955. A theory of critical elections. JOP 17:3-18.


A basic inquiry into American politics would show that some elections appear to matter more than others. To be sure, the amount of people, intensity of attitudes, nature of expected consequences, and impacts all vary. However, periodically a "critical" election comes along and creates durable new groupings of voters, revealing a sharp alteration in a pre-existing cleavage in the electorate.

  • Critical election: An election that creates durable new groupings of voters, revealing a sharp alteration in a 'pre-existing' cleavage in the electorate.

Evidence: 1896 and 1928

Key wishes to explain what he means by examining two elections: 1896 and 1928. He argues that 1928 was a realigning election due to the candidacy of Al Smith. Smith, who was of immigrant stock and Catholic, garnered support from fellow Catholics and recent immigrant groups. This set up the Roosevelt revolution (which is a bit ironic since Smith and Roosevelt did not like each other much). Key looks at two towns, Somerville (a Boston suburb with a significant Catholic and urban population) and Ashfield (which is quite the opposite). The towns show a sharp contrast, where Somerville began to support the Democrats quite sharply while Ashfield's support for Democrats was largely attenuated. Key supports this finding further by examining towns across Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont (not presented). Towns that had the largest gains for Democrats remained Democratic. Those that lost support became Republican. These effects, Key notes, differ across states and are sometimes ephemeral. Moreover, enduring partisan shifts might have resulted only from the depression (i.e. they may have happened regardless of 1928).

Key also analyzes the 1892-1896 period. His findings are a bit different than common knowledge. First, he finds that changes were in full swing by 1894. Second, changes in the electorate appear to not be along class lines (as common wisdom suggests that this was a "have vs. have-nots" battle) but rather regional (East vs. West). Whatever the cause and time frame, Key argues that both are critical elections since they, in some fashion, made realignments in the electorate that were sharp, visible, and relatively long lasting.

Comments and Criticisms

  • Key's findings, as he admits, are very tentative. For instance, if the changes were in full swing in 1894, I would think that there is something we are missing. What happened in 1894?
  • New Hampshire is fuzzy--when we are given Figure C (on page 8) we are presented with 22 Least Gain towns and 25 Most Gain towns. In Figure D (on page 10) we see New Hampshire now has 29 and 24 towns, respectively.