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Pelosi won her party’s vote to be speaker. But can she win the vote on the House floor?

Though she’s not speaker yet, she has some key advantages over her opponents.

House Democrats Elect New Leaders
Rep. Nancy Pelosi speaks to the media after the House Democratic Caucus nominated her for speaker on November 28, 2018.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last Wednesday, by a vote of 202-32 (plus three blank ballots), Nancy Pelosi was elected to be her party’s official nominee for speaker. While this was a decisive victory for the long-time Democratic leader, it was only the first of two votes that Pelosi must win if she wants to be the next speaker of the House. The second, which takes place at the start of the next Congress in January, requires gaining the assent of a majority of all House members who cast ballots for individual speaker candidates.

Pelosi is far from guaranteed to win that second vote. For one thing, the number of votes cast against her last week is well above the number she can afford to lose. Though anti-Pelosi Democrats Marcia Fudge (OH), Brian Higgins (NY), and Stephen Lynch (MA) have softened their opposition or have pledged to vote for Pelosi, other legislators, including Ron Kind (WI) and Gil Cisneros (CA), came out of the woodwork to oppose her.

In addition, while Pelosi has been able to flip some opponents in exchange for concrete concessions, there may be limits to that technique. Josh Huder argues that Pelosi has only a finite number of leadership posts, committee positions, and noncontroversial agenda items she can offer dissenters, and the availability of such goods dwindles with each holdout she appeases.

And in a preliminary statistical analysis, we found that lawmaker age and district conservatism are statistically significant predictors of opposing Pelosi. These variables likely capture concerns about reelection and an aging leadership team — concerns that cannot be easily negotiated away, especially in a party with many young members and incoming lawmakers who will represent swing or GOP-leaning districts.

Despite these challenges, however, Pelosi has at least four major advantages over her opponents in the House-wide vote for speaker. First, as Matt Glassman notes in his explanation of the speaker voting process, Pelosi can win a majority on the floor if some of her opponents choose to vote “present” or abstain from voting altogether.

This reduces the absolute number of votes needed to get elected speaker, while still allowing lawmakers to fulfill a pledge to not cast a ballot for Pelosi. Pelosi is reportedly asking some Democrats to do so, aided by the fact that her opponents do not have an agreed-upon alternative candidate to vote for.

Second, a public, chamber-wide vote for speaker is fundamentally different from a private vote for the same post. Although the public vote allows lawmakers to take electoral credit for voting against an unpopular nominee, it also opens one up to punishment by the nominee (assuming she is elected), criticism by other party members, and retribution by outside advocacy groups. Indeed, one Pelosi opponent, Kathleen Rice of New York, has already been lobbied hard to support her. As we note in our forthcoming book, this makes the floor vote for speaker a powerful test of lawmakers’ loyalty to their party.

This helps explain why there is usually a steep decline from the number of lawmakers who oppose their party’s nominee in a secret ballot to the number who oppose the nominee on the floor. In 2010, for instance, 43 Democrats voted in caucus against Pelosi as their nominee, but only 19 did so on the House floor. In 2015, 45 Republicans opposed Paul Ryan in the GOP conference, yet only nine voted against Ryan on the floor. The next year, 63 Democrats rejected Pelosi in the party, a number that dwindled to just four in the final speakership vote.

Third, last week’s caucus votes served as an escape valve for those who promised to oppose her. Leadership ballots are usually cast for specific candidates, but Pelosi allowed the caucus to vote up or down on her candidacy.

As a result, members of Congress who publicly stated that they would vote against Pelosi could argue they kept their commitments to constituents in the caucus, without casting a ballot on the floor that might elect Kevin McCarthy as speaker or throw the House into the potential chaos of multiple ballots. Indeed, Pelosi’s aides may have suggested to Democrats that they publicize their anti-Pelosi ballots with this in mind.

Finally, the predicted probability of any Democrat opposing Pelosi is not that large. In our statistical model, we found only a few Democrats had a greater than even chance of publicly opposing her election. In fact, Pelosi seems to be picking the low-hanging fruit by successfully flipping Democrats who were least likely to oppose her: Fudge, Higgins, and Lynch were among the six Democrats with the smallest likelihood (less than 10 percent) of opposing Pelosi.

This is not to say that Pelosi has smooth sailing between now and the January vote for speaker. If she has been successful thus far in shoring up support in the caucus and flipping some of her erstwhile opponents, she still must find a way to persuade more Democrats to support her (or at least not vote for another candidate) while stemming any additional defections. Also, as Brian Gaines and Gisela Sin point out, there is precedent for a bloc of dissenters to extract major concessions from speaker nominees.

Even if Pelosi wins election as speaker, it may come at the price of pledging to adhere to a term limit, something she has steadfastly resisted. But as Pelosi has proven many times before, she has the skills and tenacity to win votes with minimal compromises, especially when the stakes are high, as they certainly are when the House is trying to decide its next speaker.