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What Can History Tell Us About the Roe Effect on the Midterms?

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Kansas dignitaries attending the 2018 unveiling in Topeka of a mural commemorating the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. The ruling declared that segregated schools were unconstitutional. The mural artist Michael Young stood at far right.Credit…Mitchell Willetts/Associated Press

Two weeks ago, I asked readers if they could think of a good historical analogy to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade heading into a midterm election.

It’s an unusual case: With the court’s Dobbs decision, it’s the party out of power (the G.O.P.) that has been enjoying the biggest policy success of a president’s first term.

Well, we got a lot of good answers. We’re only able to share a few, but I have to say that the feedback was a lot better than what I ordinarily read in comment sections.

Dred Scott

There were a lot of comparisons to various civil rights breakthroughs and setbacks. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which held that Black people weren’t entitled to the privileges of citizenship, ranked as one of the most commonly cited analogies:

There’s a lot here. But as Mr. Hart notes, there is one important distinction: The Dred Scott decision was a policy victory for the party in power, the Democrats.

From the narrow standpoint of election analysis, this is a really important part of why Dobbs is unique: It’s a seminal policy victory for the party that doesn’t hold the White House.

The State of the 2022 Midterm Elections

With the primaries over, both parties are shifting their focus to the general election on Nov. 8.

  • A Focus on Crime: In the final phase of the midterm campaign, Republicans are stepping up their attacks about crime rates, but Democrats are pushing back.
  • Pennsylvania Governor’s Race: Doug Mastriano, the Trump-backed G.O.P. nominee, is being heavily outspent and trails badly in polling. National Republicans are showing little desire to help him.
  • Megastate G.O.P. Rivalry: Against the backdrop of their re-election bids, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida are locked in an increasingly high-stakes contest of one-upmanship.
  • Rushing to Raise Money: Senate Republican nominees are taking precious time from the campaign trail to gather cash from lobbyists in Washington — and close their fund-raising gap with Democratic rivals.

Usually, it’s the president’s party that pulls off the biggest policy change of a president’s first term — after all, it’s the party in power — and, in doing so, elicits a backlash from the electorate.

Brown v. Board

On the other end of the spectrum, the court’s ruling on Brown v. Board, which held that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, was also a common point of comparison:

The Brown decision has a more interesting — if still uncertain — case for being a victory for the party out of power. As our two commenters remind us, Democrats had already taken important steps toward embracing civil rights by this time, even though they were still the party of the Solid South (at least in congressional elections). Whether Dwight Eisenhower liked it or not (he didn’t), Earl Warren was appointed by the president.

On the other hand, Brown didn’t spark quite the same kind of broad public opposition as Dobbs, let alone Dred Scott. In a post-Brown poll, Gallup found that a modest majority (54 percent to 41 percent) approved of the decision. Republicans didn’t make opposition to Brown the center of the midterm campaign in 1954, as Democrats would like to do this time.

The End of Reconstruction

This one surprised me.

Unlike Dred Scott and Brown v. Board, the end of Reconstruction was unequivocally a seminal policy victory for the party out of power. It’s an odd one — it was, after all, carried out by the president. But it certainly fits our key criteria. And as Mr. Smith notes, this was an interesting election in another respect: The party out of power actually lost seats in the 1878 midterm election.

While there’s a lot to like about this analogy, there is an issue that gives me pause about embracing it as a precedent for Democrats today: The 1878 midterm was not exactly about the end of Reconstruction.

Unlike Dobbs or Dred Scott, the end of Reconstruction largely did begin to put the issue to rest (at least for the white electorate). Republicans would try to rally Civil War loyalties and “wave the bloody shirt” a few more times, but even when the Republicans nominated a Union general in 1880, they still found themselves needing to talk about tariffs.

Instead, the 1878 election was mainly about the economy. The economy had been depressed for a while, and labor unrest was on the rise. The Great Railroad strike roiled the nation in 1877. If you remember the “Greenbacks” from high school American history, this was the election when they first hit the scene. Indeed, it’s the Greenback Party that gained seats in the House, not the Democrats nor the Republicans.

Squinting at the results again with Mr. Smith’s argument in mind, I will note that the Republicans did gain seats in the North.

The Start of Reconstruction

This is an interesting one.

I have to confess this comparison made my head hurt a little bit, but not because it’s wrong, strictly speaking, but because the ascension of Mr. Johnson — a Democrat — to the presidency after the death of Abraham Lincoln scrambles some of the usual ways of thinking about a president’s first term or the “party in power.”

In some sense, isn’t Mr. Johnson’s presidency itself the surprising win for the party that ought to have been out of power? If voters elect a Republican for president and they get a Democrat, isn’t that sort of like voting for Mr. Biden but getting Dobbs?

Anyway, yes, Mr. Johnson was the president and a Republican Congress ultimately drove most of the policy change in Washington. To the extent it’s a sound analogy, it’s a good precedent for Republicans today: Despite Republican policy wins, Democrats were still pummeled in the midterms.


Some responses were edited for length.

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