Since the publication of V.O. Key’s seminal article, “A Theory of Critical Elections,” numerous scholars have worked to add theoretical depth and analytical sophistication to the study of critical elections. On the latter count, efforts have been ambitious and illuminating; on the former they largely have not. Typologies of elections and descriptions of electoral change have emerged from empirical analyses of aggregate vote data. A variety of techniques ranging from straight forwara t-tests to correlation matrices to a particularly rich analysis of variance approach have been employed to uncover patterns of electoral change. But while a good deal of descriptive, analytical headway has been made, the development of a theory of electoral change has lagged behind.
What theoretical overtures have been made, generally regard critical elections both as the products of prolonged malfunctions in the political system and as the means by which the system begins to correct these malfunctions. According to this view, American electoral politics follows a cyclic dynamic. Critical elections mark the beginnings and the ends of adjoining periods (i.e., party systems) in a repeating cycle of stability, disequilibrium, and adjustment.