V. O. Key Jr

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Key, V. O., Jr. 1908-1963


V. O. Key Jr., one of the United States greatest political scientists, pioneered the study of elections, political parties, and public opinion, and left a remarkable collection of books and articles despite a career cut short at age fiftyfive. His Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949) analyzed in penetrating fashion the confusing, little-understood political arrangements of the one-party Democratic South using innovative, intelligible techniques of electoral analysis. Noting that in its grand outlines, the politics of the South revolves around the position of the Negro (1949, p. 5), Key went on to show that the big losers in the regions odd political system were those who have less, of both races.

Likewise, his masterful Public Opinion and American Democracy (1961) offered invaluable theoretical insights into the elusive role of public attitudes in the governing process, elucidating the all-important linkage between what governments do and what the people think. If a democracy tends toward indecision, decay, and disaster, the responsibility rests [with its political leaders], not in the mass of the people (1961, p. 558), he concluded.

Key grew up in the West Texas town of Lamesa, where his father was a prominent lawyer. After earning a BA and MA at the University of Texas, he studied at the University of Chicago from 1930 to 1934 under Charles Merriam, an advocate of a new science of politics, earning his PhD in 1934. After two years of teaching at UCLA and a year each working for the Social Science Research Council in Chicago and the National Resources Planning Board in Washington, D.C., Key assumed his first longterm faculty position, at Johns Hopkins University in 1939. There he immediately launched into writing his influential, path-breaking textbook Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups, which appeared in 1942 and went through five editions. His colleagues hailed the book; Charles Beard wrote to the author that his bully book gleams with humor well concealed (quoted in Lucker 2001, p. 49). Key made political power the books central theme, telling the publisher in his 1939 proposal that all of what we call political phenomenon can be interpreted around this concept, adding: By imaginative treatment, these dry-as-dust matters could perhaps be made, if not to sparkle, at least gleam (quoted in Lucker 2001, pp. 4344). Therein lies an element of Keys success: He matched insightful analysis with an engaging writing style.

Key remained at Johns Hopkins University for a decade, broken only by wartime service at the Bureau of the Budget. Yale University lured him away in 1949, but two years later he moved to Harvard, where he operated at the pinnacle of his discipline for the last twelve years of his life. In the Journal of Politics in February 1955 he published his most famous article, A Theory of Critical Elections, which called attention to a type of election in which the decisive results of the voting reveal a sharp alteration of the pre-existing cleavage within the electorate (p. 4). The article gave birth to an enduring subfieldthe study of electoral realignments.

Always at the forefront of his discipline, Key mastered the new techniques of survey research in the late 1950s, taking up residence at the University of Michigan to work with the National Election Studies, then in their infancy. To speak with precision of public opinion, he asserted at the outset of his resulting 1961 book, Public Opinion and American Democracy, is a task not unlike coming to grips with the Holy Ghost (p. 8). But in 550 well-crafted pages, Key captured the elusive topic, locating it firmly within the political process.

At the time of Keys death in 1963, he was at work on a massive study of the voting process. Using Keys incomplete manuscript, his student Milton C. Cummings published The Responsible Electorate in 1966. The central theme of this slim volume is that voters exhibit an impressive amount of rationality in light of the choices they face, a notion still widely quoted using Keys apt phrasing: Voters are not fools. If he had lived to complete the work himself, there is no doubt he would have produced a weighty study comparable to his last classic, Public Opinion and American Democracy.

SEE ALSO Democracy; Elections; Interest Groups and Interests; Merriam, Charles Edward, Jr.; Political Science; Politics, Southern; Public Opinion; Race and Political Science; Rationality; Survey; Voting Patterns


Key, V. O., Jr. 1942. Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.

Key, V. O., Jr. 1949. Southern Politics in State and Nation. New York: Knopf.

Key, V. O., Jr. 1955. A Theory of Critical Elections. Journal of Politics 17 (1): 318.

Key, V. O., Jr. 1961. Public Opinion and American Democracy. New York: Knopf.

Key, V. O., Jr., and Milton C. Cummings. 1966. The Responsible Electorate: Rationality in Presidential Voting. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Lamis, Alexander P., and Nathan Goldman. 1987. V. O. Keys Southern Politics: The Writing of a Classic. Georgia Historical Quarterly 71 (2): 261285.

Lucker, Andrew M. 2001. V. O. Key, Jr.: The Quintessential Political Scientist. New York: Peter Lang.

Alexander P. Lamis

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Key, V. O., Jr.


V. O. Key, Jr. (1908–1963) played a central role in the development of a more empirical or behavioral approach in American political science. Key was a Texan and received much of his education in Texas, for two years at McMurry College in Abilene and then at the University of Texas, where he obtained his B.A. in 1929 and his M.A. in 1930. Key then went to the University of Chicago for his doctoral work.

The Chicago school of political science, led by Charles E. Merriam and his student (and later colleague) Harold D. Lasswell, was diverse in its interests but united in its aim to explore new methods of studying political and administrative behavior. The department pioneered in the use of statistics, the use of field methods, the study of the role of psychology in politics, and, above all, the study of power and power relations. In this stimulating environment Key wrote, under Merriam’s direction, his dissertation, The Techniques of Political Graft in the United States. In it he dealt with graft not as a legal or moral problem but as one of many forms of social control and influence.

After teaching for a short time at the University of California at Los Angeles, Key moved to Washington, D.C., in 1936. There he was first associated with the Social Science Research Council and then served as a staff member of the controversial National Resources Planning Board. In 1938 he joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins University, but World War Ii brought him back to Washington for several years’ service with the U.S. Bureau of the Budget. His Washington experience served as a valuable supplement to his academic training by exposing him to the actual processes of decision making at the national level.

Key’s central concern with the process of governing was made clear in 1942 in the first edition of his pioneering text, Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups. Instead of being a mere chronicle of party history, the book presented a broad analysis of the functions of different elements in the political process. Key examined the sections and interest groups that contend for power and dealt with the roles of the party system and of the electorate. Finally, he discussed the role of force and violence, the uses of pecuniary sanctions, and education (or socialization) as a form of political control [seeInterest groups].

Shortly after World War II Key assumed direction of research for a major study of the electoral process in the South. The project led to Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949), which was promptly hailed as a classic as well as a harbinger of a new era in political science writing. It received the Woodrow Wilson Foundation award for 1949 and inspired a number of subsequent regional studies.

In order to find meaningful patterns in Southern politics, Key analyzed local election returns and conducted extensive interviews with participants in politics and with observers. He showed that the underlying pattern in many primary elections was one of conflict between counties with a high pro-portion of Negroes (then nonvoting) and counties with fewer Negroes. The race issue had a far more potent appeal in the former counties than in the latter. In general, the issues in the primary election contests of the one-party South had to do with support for the “local” candidate or with the personal qualifications of candidates rather than with substantive political problems. Key suggested that this fragmented style of politics, conducted without the stabilizing influence of party label, probably made it difficult to develop sustained popular sup-port for any federally sponsored programs and, hence, probably worked to the long-run advantage of the haves as against the have-nots (1949, p. 307).

Soon after the publication of Southern Politics, Key accepted an appointment to Yale University as Alfred Cowles professor of government and chairman of the political science department. But he much preferred research to administrative duties, and in 1951 he moved to Harvard, where he held the Jonathan Trumbull professorship of American history and government. Although troubled by ill health he continued to work at a remarkable pace. In 1958 he was elected president of the American Political Science Association.

Key hoped that the use of quantitative methods in political science might be extended, and to this end he produced a basic guide to statistics, using illustrative material drawn from political data. This was published in 1954 as A Primer of Statistics for Political Scientists. It combined a general introduction to statistics with shrewd advice on re-search strategy.

In 1956 Key published his American State Politics, a study which examined the functioning of two-party states by the use of aggregate election returns. He gave particular attention to the effects of the separation of powers and of the direct-primary method of nomination on state parties [seeElections, article onelectoral systems].

Even while he was working on state politics, Key’s interests were turning to the application of survey research to the study of politics. He had long been dissatisfied with the early sociological approach to the study of voting, and in the paper “Social Determinism and Electoral Decision” (1959) he and Frank Munger criticized the idea that social characteristics determine political preference. Key and Munger suggested that this theory did not take into account the independence of such political factors as party identification, and they maintained that it is the very events of politics that make some social factors important at one time but not at another.

Key believed that ultimately “the concern of the student of politics must center on the operation of the state apparatus” (1960, p. 55) and not on the individual voter, and that although the sample survey is “a powerful observational instrument,” it is difficult to use this instrument in such a way that it sheds light on “significant questions of politics.” He noted that it was “a truly formidable task to build a bridge from observation of the atoms of the political system to the system itself” (1960, p. 55).

Although he recognized the difficulties in adapting the survey research method to the study of what is politically relevant, Key felt that the effort was worthwhile. Public Opinion and American Democracy (1961) grew out of his attempt to get at the politically relevant by reanalyzing previously gathered survey material. He sought, insofar as secondary analysis permitted, to explore the patterns and distributions of opinions, the ways opinions are formed, and the properties they have. But he was aware that “these endeavors are bootless unless the findings about the preferences, aspirations, and prejudices of the public can be connected with the workings of the government system” (1961, p. 535), and his ultimate concern, therefore, was to find the links between mass opinion and the operation of the system. To do this, he concluded, “we have had to go beyond the survey data and make assumptions and estimates about the role and behavior of that thin stratum of persons referred to variously as the political elite, the political activists, the leadership echelons, or the influentials” (1961, p. 536) [seePublic opinion].

Although his health became progressively worse, Key set to work to analyze the survey findings which had accumulated from 1936 to 1960, in order to uncover the broad nature of electoral decision. At the time of his death he had almost completed the study, subsequently published as The Responsible Electorate (1966). Here he sought to show that American presidential elections are tests of the public’s judgment of a party’s past performance in office rather than mandates for one of two competing party platforms. Drawing on the large samples used in Gallup polls, Key showed the extent to which people who switch from one party to the other usually move in a direction consistent with their expressed policy preferences. Similarly, voters standing by their previous choices are also generally being consistent. This suggests a rather greater degree of voter rationality than is commonly inferred from the average voter’s inability to articulate his policy preferences.

While Key’s own work was received with great respect, his basic emphasis on combining empirical techniques with concern for the significant questions of politics was by no means a universal one at the time of his death. Many of those political scientists who shared his empirical bent found it easier to do microscopic studies of the individual voter than to unravel the connections between voters and the political system. When these links are successfully established, scholars will appreciate the extent to which Key was ahead of his time.

H. Douglas Price

[For the context of Key’s work, seeParties, political; Political science; Public opinion; voting; and the biography ofMerriam.]


1936 The Techniques of Political Graft in the United States. Univ. of Chicago Libraries.

1937 The Administration of Federal Grants to States. Chicago: Public Administration Service. 1939 KEY, V. O.; and CROUCH, WINSTON W. The Initiative and the Referendum in California. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

1940 The Lack of a Budgetary Theory. American Political Science Review 34:1137–1144.

(1942) 1964 Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups. 5th ed. New York: Crowell.

1943 The Veterans and the House of Representatives: A Study of a Pressure Group and Electoral Mortality. Journal of Politics 5:27–40.

(1946) 1959 Legislative Control. Pages 312–333 in Fritz M. Marx (editor), Elements of Public Administration. 2d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

1949 Southern Politics in State and Nation. New York: Knopf.

1954 A Primer of Statistics for Political Scientists. New York: Crowell.

1955a The Erosion of Sectionalism. Virginia Quarterly Review 31:161–179.

1955b A Theory of Critical Elections. Journal of Politics 17:3–18.

1956 American State Politics: An Introduction. New York: Knopf.

1958 The State of the Discipline. American Political Science Review 52:961–971.

1959 Secular Realignment and the Party System. Journal of Politics 21:198–210.

1959 KEY, V. O.; and MUNGER, FRANK J. Social Deter-minisim and Electoral Decision: The Case of Indiana. Pages 281–299 in Eugene Burdick and Arthur J. Brodbeck (editors), American Voting Behavior. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

1960 The Politically Relevant in Surveys. Public Opinion Quarterly 24:54–61.

1961 Public Opinion and American Democracy. New York: Knopf.

1966 The Responsible Electorate: Rationality in Presidential Voting, 1936–1960. Edited by Milton C. Cummings, Jr. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. -→ Published posthumously.