Walter Dean Burnham

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Walter Dean Burnham
Born 1930
Place of birth missing
Alma mater Johns Hopkins University
Harvard University
Occupation Political scientist
Professor emeritus at University of Texas at Austin

Walter Dean Burnham (born 1930) is an authority[according to whom?] on American elections and voting patterns, best known for quantitative analysis of national trends and patterns in the popular vote, in developing the "Party Systems" model, and for assembling county election returns for the entire country.


Burnham retired in 2003; he is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Texas at Austin, where he held the Frank Erwin Centennial Chair in Government, named for a former long-term UT regent. In 1951, Burnham received his AB from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He procured his Ph.D. in 1963 from Harvard University, where he worked with political scientist V.O. Key, Jr. Prior to coming to Texas in 1988, he taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Burnham was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and he served as president of the Politics and History Section of the American Political Science Association.

Burnham is a specialist in election returns, and the sources of data for the ICPSR. He interprets data in terms of statistical patterns and trends. He is primarily involved in American election data from 1824 to 1960.

The Alabama U.S. Senate race of 1962

In 1964, Burnham published an article on the 1962 U.S. Senate election in Alabama, when Republicans made their first strong showing for federal office since Reconstruction in the state known as "The Heart of Dixie." The Republican James D. Martin of Gadsden, an oil products distributor, challenged veteran Democrat J. Lister Hill of Montgomery and fell only a few thousand votes short of victory. Burnham describes the Martin campaign as an aberration from the customary issueless, personalist southern primary elections. Martin's campaign was a pacesetter for subsequent southern elections in that it was waged over national issues—mobilizing the white backlash against civil rights, stressing free enterprise, local control, and individual freedom; decrying big-spending federal program which had not yet gained wide acceptance in Alabama, shifting emphasis from opposition to desegregation to the preservation of states rights, and claiming that the Republican candidates would safeguard liberty, freedom, and the state's social system. Burnham found it ironical that a Republican from the populist North Alabama ran strongly in the cities and Black Belt, while the Democratic senator from the capital city of Montgomery appealed to the northern hill country, where voters appreciated programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority and were less racially conscious because of the relatively small number of African Americans in their region. Martin fared best in those counties with non-voting blacks, prior to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. All but one of the fifteen counties which showed a decline in the Republican vote between 1960 and 1962 were in the Appalachian section of North Alabama. Martin's showing along the Gulf Coast and the Florida Panhandle was paradoxical because southeast Alabama had been traditionally the most populist since the 1890s. Two years after the Hill-Martin race, Burnham correctly forecast that the inroads of presidential Republicanism would continue in the South, but competition at the state and local levels would take root slowly.[1]

Critical Elections

Burnham's 1970 book Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics presents a theory of American political development that focuses on the role of party systems that endure for several decades, only to be disrupted by a critical election. Such elections not only hand presidential and congressional power to the non-incumbent political party, but they do so in a dramatic way that repudiates the worn-out ideas of the old party and initiates a new era whose leaders govern on a new set of assumptions, ideologies, and public policies. The elections of 1860 and 1932 are perhaps the clearest examples of critical elections, and scholars have disagreed about how well Burnham's theories still explain American electoral politics. Others contend that 1968 was a realigning election for Republicans holding the presidency from 1969 to 1977 and again from 1981 to 1993.

The frequency of its citation in the footnotes of other works indicates that Burnham's article "The Changing Shape of the American Political Universe" (1965) was highly influential. The majority of citations focus on the themes of voter turnout decline, realignment in 1896, and explanations for voter decline. The theory of elite, capitalist control of the political system in the 20th century has gained less attention and support.[2]

Major publications by Burnham

  • Presidential Ballots, 1836-1892 (1976) annotated compilation of county election results
  • "The Changing Shape of the American Political Universe" American Political Science Review (1965) in JSTOR
  • The American party systems: Stages of political development edited by William Nisbet Chambers and Burnham (1975)
  • Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (1970) (summary)
  • Politics/America: The Cutting Edge of Change (1972)
  • The Current Crisis in American Politics (1982)
  • The Evolution of American Electoral Systems (Contributions in American History) with Paul Kleppner, et al. (1981)
  • Democracy in the Making: American Government and Politics (1986), textbook
  • Voting in American Elections with Celia M. Wallhead (2009)

Video by Burnham

Articles about Burnham

  • Beck, Paul Allen. "Micropolitics in Macro Perspective: the Political History of Walter Dean Burnham." Social Science History 1986 10(3): 221-245. in JSTOR
  • Jensen, Richard. "The Changing Shape of Burnham's Political Universe," Social Science History 10 (1986) 209-19 in JSTOR


  1. Walter Dean Burnham, "The Alabama Senatorial Election of 1962: Return of Inter-Party Competition", Journal of Politics 26 (November 1964), pp. 811-815; 827-829; Bernard Cosman, Five States for Goldwater (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1966), pp. 60-63
  2. Beck (1986)