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Nancy Pelosi Won Her Leadership Race By The Narrowest Margin In Years

There isn’t typically a whole lot of ink spilled over House leadership elections. But 2016, superlative in all things, most especially chaos, has seen a bit of a ruckus over the Democrats’ vote.

While Nancy Pelosi won re-election to her minority leader position for the Democrats on Wednesday, it was the most contested party leadership race in years, with Rep. Tim Ryan, a 43-year-old from the Mahoning Valley in Ohio, mounting a longshot challenge. He wasn’t successful, but Ryan managed to leech a significant amount of support from Pelosi; she won with only 68 percent of the vote. Since Pelosi was first elected minority leader in the 108th congress in 2003, the closest Democratic vote had been in the 112th Congress (2011), when Pelosi won the leadership election with 71.3 percent of the vote.

108 2003 86.3% 29
109 2005 100.0 0
110 2007 100.0 0
111 2009 100.0 0
112 2011 77.7 43
113 2013 100.0 0
114 2015 100.0 0
115 2017 68.0 63
Nancy Pelosi’s intra-party leadership elections

Source: media reports

By the standards of party leadership elections, Pelosi won in a squeaker. These types of elections take place in closed sessions and only the total vote is reported, not that of individual members. Votes for House speaker, in contrast, are public and take place in the House chamber at the beginning of each session of Congress. During these votes for speaker, members of the minority party traditionally cast symbolic votes for their party’s leader. That vote hasn’t happened yet for the 115th Congress, but for comparison, these votes — like internal party leadership elections — tend to be lopsided. (We used data available to us on votes, beginning with the 102nd Congress.)

102 1991 Tom Foley D 99.6% 1
103 1993 Tom Foley D 99.6 1
104 1995 Newt Gingrich R 100.0 0
105 1997 Newt Gingrich R 96.0 9
106 1999 Dennis Hastert R 99.5 1
107 2001 Dennis Hastert R 100.0 0
108 2003 Dennis Hastert R 99.6 1
109 2005 Dennis Hastert R 97.8 5
110 2007 Nancy Pelosi D 100.0 0
111 2009 Nancy Pelosi D 99.6 1
112 2011 John Boehner R 100.0 0
113 2013 John Boehner R 94.8 12
114 2015 John Boehner R 87.4 25
114 2015 Paul Ryan R 96.0 9
Majority party support for House speaker

Source: media reports

102 1991 Robert H. Michel R 100.0% 0
103 1993 Robert H. Michel R 100.0 0
104 1995 Richard Gephardt D 99.0 2
105 1997 Richard Gephardt D 100.0 0
106 1999 Richard Gephardt D 97.1 6
107 2001 Richard Gephardt D 97.6 5
108 2003 Nancy Pelosi D 97.5 5
109 2005 Nancy Pelosi D 98.5 3
110 2007 John Boehner R 100.0 0
111 2009 John Boehner R 98.3 3
112 2011 Nancy Pelosi D 89.6 20
113 2013 Nancy Pelosi D 96.0 8
114 2015 Nancy Pelosi D 87.0 4
Minority party support for the House minority leader

In 2015, Nancy Pelosi’s share of her party vote was lower than expected because many members were absent attending the funeral of Mario Cuomo.

Source: media reports

Ryan’s entrance into the race marked a significant spot of pique among congressional Democrats eager to shake up the party’s messaging to appeal to white working-class voters in the industrial Midwest, many of whom voted for Donald Trump. Ryan’s district, which Trump carried — a fact Pelosi gleefully pointed out in the run-up to the election — is home to many of those voters. Ryan had played up his blue-collar bona fides in the run-up to the leadership election, saying in a recent interview that the 2018 election is “not going to be won at fundraisers on the coasts — it’s going to be won in union halls in the industrial Midwest and fish fries in the Midwest and the South.”

Pelosi represents a wealthy San Francisco district, and she is known as a powerful fundraising force within the party. By contrast, Ryan’s district is struggling. Just a day after the presidential election, General Motors announced that it would be laying off 2,000 employees at a plant in his district, as well as in Lansing, Michigan.

Though Pelosi prevailed, the weakness of her victory might well mark the emergence of a coalition of more populist Democrats, carved from the same demographic cloth of the “Reagan Democrats” of the past. Ryan is steeped in this tradition, having served as an aide to and succeeded populist Rep. Jim Traficant, notorious for his corruption scandals and something of a proto-Trump personality in political life, down to the imaginative coiffure.

Pelosi spoke to reporters shortly after the vote. “We know how to win elections,” she said. “We’ve done it in the past, we will do it again.

CORRECTION (Dec. 2, 4:55 p.m.): An earlier version of this article mistakenly added votes taken during party leadership elections in the House to votes taken during the election for House speaker. Those votes are separate and should not have been shown together in the same table. The article has been updated with a new table showing the results of Democratic party leadership elections in the House since 2003. Because of that change, the headline of the article has also been changed to reflect the time period of Democratic party leadership elections since Pelosi first became minority leader.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.