V. O. Key, Jr. Essay

Political scientist and empiricist Vladimer Orlando Key Jr. (1908–1963) graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and completed his doctorate at the University of Chicago in 1934. The bulk of his academic career was spent at Johns Hopkins University (1938–1949),Yale University (1949–1951), and Harvard University (1951–1963).

Key was a central figure in the postwar development of political science in the United States. He combined an extraordinary grasp of detail and data overlooked by others, with an equally exceptional capacity to integrate this information into compelling propositions about the nature of democratic politics in the United States. He regarded political parties as central to the vitality of a democracy. Key’s work was noteworthy for the innovative use of charts, scatterplots, maps, and tables that accompanied his texts. He was a founding personage in the behavioral revolution that swept political science in the 1950s.

In his later years, Key became increasingly alarmed by changes in the polity that undercut the role of political parties as organizers of electoral politics. Toward the end of his life, the media-and-poll-driven politics of the so-called permanent campaign were still in its infancy, but he clearly perceived the trend and its implications. He came to be equally concerned that the pioneering survey-research enterprise of that period was, by excluding politics, gravely devaluing the role of the electorate in the political system’s decision making. While deeply committed to the use of statistics and quantification in political research, Key was strongly opposed to the presentism— the omission of the time dimension—that so often accompanied the behavioral revolution. For Key, the time dimension was an essential ingredient in adequate analysis of the complex structures and processes of electoral politics; in other words, history mattered. As Key stated in his work The Responsible Electorate (1966), “The perverse and unorthodox argument of this little book is that voters are not fools.”

Key was a venerated figure within his profession, but his practical influence on developments within American political science went into decline for some years. However, there has been a reversal of interest more recently. This may be because of Key’s early work in at least three areas of research that later scholarship has expanded upon. The first of these areas concerns the cognitive capacity of voters and retrospective voting. The second involves the professional study of critical realignments in American electoral politics and dates back to Key’s seminal article of 1955, “A Theory of Critical Elections.” The third area is American political development. Here the link between contemporary study and Key’s work may be found in Key’s insistence on the central political role of institutions and processes, as these are shaped by the contingencies of time.


  1. Cummings, Milton E., ed. V. O. Key, Jr. and the Study of American Politics. Washington, D.C.: American Political Science Association, 1988.
  2. Key,V. O., Jr. American State Politics. New York: Knopf, 1956.
  3. Politics, Parties and Pressure Groups. New York: Crowell, 1942.
  4. Public Opinion and American Democracy. New York: Knopf, 1961.
  5. The Responsible Electorate. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966.
  6. Southern Politics in State and Nation. New York: Knopf, 1949.
  7. “A Theory of Critical Elections.” Journal of Politics 17 (1955): 3–28.
  8. Lucker, Andrew M. V. O. Key Jr.:The Quintessential Political Scientist. New York: Lang, 2001.
  9. Natchez, Peter B. Images of Voting/Visions of Democracy. New York: Basic Books, 1985.

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