A critical election is one that yields a fundamental and durable realignment of voters' partisan affiliations. First identified by V.O. Key, Jr. in a 1955 publication, the concept has become the basis of an extensive political science literature on realignment theory and its application to American politics.
V.O. Key developed the "critical elections" concept as a first step towards building a typology of elections, which he believed would further the systematic understanding of comparative democratic politics.
While Key himself did not go beyond identifying the single, "critical" election type, Angus Campbell and his coauthors of The American Voter subsequently fleshed out the schema to include three election types: "realigning" elections, which are essentially the same as Key's critical elections in that they augur a durable transformation of voter allegiances; "maintaining" elections, which sustain the prevailing alignment of voter allegiances; and "deviating" elections, which yield a temporary shift in voting behavior that is not indicative of any fundamental change in mass partisan identification. In 1967, Gerald Pomper added a fourth class of "converting" elections, in which the prevailing majority party remains in power but with a substantially altered mass support base.
From critical elections to realignment theory
Critical elections and realignment in the United States
Critical elections and realignment in comparative perspective
- "A Theory of Critical Elections," Journal of Politics 17: 3-18
- Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, Warren Miller, and Donald Stokes. The American Voter (New York: Wiley, 1960) p. 531
- Gerald Pomper, "Classification of Presidential Elections," Journal of Politics 29 (1967) pp. 535-566.