The concept of critical realignment has shaped much of the thinking of political scientists and historians about the processes and patterns of change in American politics. Research on re-alignment has, however, tended to focus on successful cases and to concentrate on the electoral breakpoints rather than the process of regime formation, with the result that little systematic thinking has been devoted to the question of why some electoral upheavals lead to party realignment while other large vote shifts do not. This article begins from the proposition that the election does not so much constitute the realignment as offer the opportunity and the momentum for the new party to build a lasting national coalition. Whether the party capitalizes on this potential depends on processes and events that follow the critical election, during what could be called the ‘consolidation phase’ of the realignment. The question is ultimately one about public opinion, but the concept of consolidation needs to take in the interaction between the public and political elites, since mass opinion is formed in the context of elite initiatives and interpretations. The model of consolidation depicts two interrelated processes. The first involves strategic competition among elites, including elected officials and organized societal interests, who frame the conflict, by prioritizing issues and cleavages, and by relating policy proposals to group identities and widely-shared values. The second focuses on the public. Their standing loyalties disrupted by the crisis and the incumbents' inability to deal with it successfully, citizens engage in a process of experiential search as they seek to re-establish the stable political orientation given by attachment to a political party. The article draws on qualitative and quantitative information from the New Deal to illustrate the model of consolidation.