In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Critical Elections, Partisan Realignment, and Long-Term Electoral Change in American Politics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Critical Elections
  • How Mass Attitudes Change: The “Conflict Extension” Paradigm
  • Elite Incentives: How Will Parties and Activists Behave?
  • Party Identification: Different Perspectives
  • Participation
  • Partisanship and Demographics
  • Polarization

Political Science Critical Elections, Partisan Realignment, and Long-Term Electoral Change in American Politics
Edward G. Carmines, Eric R. Schmidt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0246


Research on electoral change in American politics has taken many forms. Some of the earliest research in this tradition was concerned with “critical elections”—that is, the possibility that some individual presidential elections represent an abrupt shift in politics-as-usual. This shift might manifest as changes to policymaking, new patterns of mass partisan identification, or both. However, the “critical elections” perspective was soon challenged by a different paradigm: concern with longer-term political change not accomplished through one presidential election. Under the “secular realignment” paradigm, the restructuring of partisan conflict along new issue lines takes many elections to accomplish. Moreover, determining how realignments happen is as important as identifying particular realignments themselves. Rational choice perspectives emphasize the incentives of party elites and activists to exploit particular issue cleavages. More behavioralist approaches ask about the nature of mass partisan identification, and the meaning (or lack thereof) of aggregate-level changes in partisanship. Other research explores the conditions under which elites and activists convince the public to accede to a new issue agenda for party politics. Indeed, the “secular realignment” paradigm helped spawn a host of literatures concerned with other phenomena with similarly long-term implications for American politics. We address three additional literatures, because they expand (or update) the realignment paradigm to include related inquiries. Put differently, it is simply not the case that “realignment” has declining importance to American politics. Rather, the potential for realignment is a latent concern in most research on partisan change. First, where scholars address emerging demographic gaps in partisan voting patterns, they echo the central measurement strategy of the earliest “critical elections” research. Second, where literature explains changes in voter turnout, this applies a key insight missing from some earlier realignment work: that individual decisions not to vote are as important as voting itself. Finally, work on increasing partisan polarization has clear implications for whether another electoral realignment is on the horizon. There is clear continuity between (1) political scientists’ initial focus on critical elections, (2) the transition to partisan realignment theory, and (3) the eventual expansion of inquiry to encompass most long-term electoral change.

General Overviews

The following overview references are helpful introductions to the topic of realignment, as well as to general accounts of the changes represented by various election cycles. Rosenof 2003 attests to the impact that realignment theory has had on political science. Aldrich, et al. 2018 is one recent edition of a book series that—for more than thirty-five years—has documented the “change and continuity” associated with US elections.

  • Aldrich, John H., Jamie L. Carson, Brad T. Gomez, and David W. Rohde. Change and Continuity in the 2016 Elections. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2018.

    The Change and Continuity series has been published on a biennial or quadrennial basis since the first edition appeared in 1982. It represents the gold standard for contemporary reflections on what presidential and midterm elections represent for national politics.

  • Rosenof, Theodore. Realignment: The Theory That Changed the Way We Think about American Politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.

    From a historical perspective, Rosenof documents the impact that realignment theory had on the discipline of political science. Particular attention is given to the individual scholars involved in the development of realignment theory, and to methodological disagreements wrought by the advent of survey research.

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