V. O. Key Jr.

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V. O. Key Jr.
Born(1908-03-13)March 13, 1908
DiedOctober 4, 1963(1963-10-04) (aged 55)
OccupationPolitical scientist
Known fora leader of the "behavioral movement" in political studies
Luella Gettys
(m. 1934)

Valdimer Orlando Key Jr. (March 13, 1908 – October 4, 1963), usually known simply as V. O. Key, was an American political scientist known for his empirical study of American elections and voting behavior.[2] He taught at Johns Hopkins University and Harvard.

Early life and education[edit]

V. O. Key was born in Austin, Texas.

When he was 15, his father, a lawyer and land owner, sent him to McMurry College for his last two years of high school and first year of college. He transferred to the University of Texas at Austin (B.A., 1929; M.A., 1930), and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1934. He completed his dissertation, "The Techniques of Political Graft in the United States" (1934) under Charles E. Merriam's direction.[1]

From 1936 to 1938, he served with the Social Science Research Council and the National Resources Planning Board.[1]


He taught at UCLA, Johns Hopkins University (1938–49), and Yale University (1949–51) before starting his last professorship at Harvard University in 1951.[1]

During World War II, he worked with his mentor Harold Foote Gosnell at the Bureau of the Budget.[1]

In 1942 Key published the first edition of his very widely used textbook, Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups, in which he emphasized that politics was a contest and the main players were organized interest groups. The book decisively shaped the teaching of political science by introducing realism in analysis of politics, introducing the "interest group" model, and introducing behavioral methods based on statistical analysis of election returns. It went through five editions, the last published posthumously in 1964, but was not further revised by other authors after his death.

His Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949) was a microscopic examination, state by state, of Southern politics using interviews and statistics. The book is one of the most influential books on the subject.[3] In Public Opinion and American Democracy (1961) he analyzed the link between the changing patterns of public opinion and the governmental system. He opposed the Michigan model that argued voters' preferences were determined by psychological factors, thereby, in his view, taking most of the politics out of political science.

According to Chandler Davidson, "When Southern Politics in State and Nation was published in 1949, Key's reputation...was established beyond question. The book was magisterial, a brilliant sweeping survey of eleven southern states that destroyed once and for all the myth of the 'solid South.'"[4]

In his posthumous work, The Responsible Electorate: Rationality in Presidential Voting 1936–60 (1966), he analyzed public opinion data and electoral returns to show what he believed to be the rationality of voters' choices as political decisions rather than responses to psychological stimuli. His opening statement to this book famously argued: "The perverse and unorthodox argument of this little book is that voters are not fools."[5]

Key also refuted the hypothesis that "Southern backwardness" could be attributed to poor whites. Rather, he asserted that a rich oligarchy of "Southern Bourbons" manipulated working class whites, and unified Southern voters to preserve the economic and social order of the time.[6]

Other works by Key include The Techniques of Political Graft in the United States (1936), A Primer of Statistics for Political Scientists (1954), and American State Politics: An Introduction (1956). He pioneered the study of critical elections and served as president of the American Political Science Association in 1958–59.

In October 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the President's Commission on Campaign Costs, which reported in 1962.[1]

Personal life[edit]

Key married Cora Luella Gettys Key on October 27, 1934. Born in Nebraska on October 17, 1898, she attended the University of Nebraska and earned a master's degree from its Department of Political and Social Sciences in 1921. After continuing her education at Bryn Mawr College, she received a Doctorate in Political Science from the University of Illinois, where she was a Carnegie Fellow in International Law, in 1925; her dissertation examined The Effect of Changes of Sovereignty on Nationality. She then worked at the University of Chicago in the Political Science Department, where she met her future husband, then a graduate student. After their marriage and continuing into the 1950s, Luella Key (she did not use her first name) worked at the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service. Her publications include The Reorganization of State Government in Nebraska (NE Legislative Reference Bureau, 1922), The Effect of Changes of Sovereignty on Nationality (Urbana, IL, 1926) (based on her dissertation), The Law of Citizenship in the United States (University of Chicago Press, 1934), and The Administration of Canadian Conditional Grants (Public Administration Service, 1938). Luella Key died in June 1975. Some of her papers are preserved in the Archives & Special Collections at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Library,[7] and in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University.[8]

Key died at Beth Israel Hospital in Brookline, Massachusetts.[2]


  • The Techniques of Political Graft in the United States, 1934, 1936.
  • The Administration of Federal Grants to States, Public Administration Service, 1937, Johnson Reprint Corp., 1972.
  • (With Winston M. Crouch) The Initiative and the Referendum in California, University of California Press, 1939.
  • The Problem of Local Legislation in Maryland, 1940.
  • Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups, Crowell, 1942, 2nd edition, 1947, 3rd edition, 1952, 4th edition, 1958, 5th edition, 1964; online free
  • (With Alexander Heard) Southern Politics in State and Nation (Knopf, 1949, new edition, University of Tennessee Press, 1984). online
  • A Primer of Statistics for Political Scientists, Crowell, 1954, 1966. online
  • "A Theory of Critical Elections." 1955. Journal of Politics 17(1): 3–18.
  • American State Politics: An Introduction, Knopf, 1956, Greenwood Press, 1983. online
  • Public Opinion and American Democracy, Knopf, 1961. online
  • (With Milton C. Cummings) The Responsible Electorate: Rationality in Presidential Voting, 1936–1960, Belknap Press, 1966. online


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Valdimer Orlando Key, Jr.". Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1981. GALE|BT2310009833. Retrieved 2011-12-14 – via fee, Fairfax County Public Library. Gale Biography In Context
  2. ^ a b "V.O. Key Jr. of Harvard Dead. Authority on American History". New York Times. October 5, 1963. p. 20. Dr. V.O. Key Jr., Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History and Government at Harvard University and an authority on American government and politics, ...
  3. ^ Robert P. Steed; Laurence W. Moreland (2015). Writing Southern Politics: Contemporary Interpretations and Future Directions. University Press of Kentucky. p. 241. ISBN 9780813157764.
  4. ^ Chandler Davidson (1992). Race and Class in Texas Politics. Princeton UP. p. 3. ISBN 0691025398.
  5. ^ "Summary of Key: The responsible electorate - From WikiSummary, free summaries of academic books and articles". wikisum.com. Retrieved 2017-08-22.
  6. ^ "The Southern Coup". TNR. 1995.
  7. ^ "Luella Gettys Key, Papers, 1929–1959 | Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska—Lincoln Libraries".
  8. ^ "Luella Gettys Key Papers, 1922–1948".

Further reading[edit]

  • Fitzgerald, Keith. "History, institutions, and political culture: V.O. Key as an exemplar for a revived research program." Political Science Reviewer (December 31, 2000).
  • Lucker, Andrew M. V. O. Key Jr.: The Quintessential Political Scientist (2001).
  • Maxwell, Angie, and Todd G. Shields, eds. Unlocking V.O. Key Jr.: "Southern Politics" for the Twenty-First Century (University of Arkansas Press; 2011) 231 pages
  • Ness, Gary C. "The Southern Politics Project and the Writing of Recent Southern History." South Atlantic Quarterly 1977 76(1): 58–72. ISSN 0038-2876
  • Uslaner, Eric M. "Comparative State Policy Formation, Interparty Competition, and Malapportionment: a New Look at 'V. O. Key's Hypotheses'". Journal of Politics 1978 40(2): 409–432. ISSN 0022-3816 Fulltext at Jstor and Ebsco
  • Wlezien, Christopher. "V O Key, Jr., Public Opinion and American Democracy." in The Oxford Handbook of Classics in Public Policy and Administration (2015).
  • "V(aldimer) O(rlando) Key, Jr.". Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale. 2002. GALE|H1000053762. Retrieved 2011-12-14.