Nancy Pelosi is a remarkable politician. You don’t become the first female speaker of the House – and then become speaker again – all while leading your party in the chamber for two decades without hugely formidable skills.
But there’s one trait at which – even among the best of politicians – Pelosi is absolutely elite: Counting votes.
Pelosi announced Thursday that she will not run for a leadership post, but will continue to serve in the House, where Republicans captured the majority in the midterm elections. During her run atop of the House Democratic caucus, no one – and I mean no one – knew not just how to measure support (and opposition), but how to convince and cajole members to support her priorities like she did.
That skill dates all the way back to Pelosi’s first major victory in her climb up the Democratic leadership ladder.
In the early 2000s, it was clear that Rep. Dick Gephardt, who was the House Democratic leader, was eying the exits, preparing for an ultimately unsuccessful presidential bid in 2004. The race to be minority whip then was regarded as a proxy for who would lead the caucus when Gephardt moved on.
The race was fought behind the scenes for years, literally. But, when it came time to vote, Pelosi won 118-95 in 2001 – a victory that made her the highest-ranking woman ever in congressional leadership at the time. She was then on course to become House minority leader in 2003 and speaker in 2007 (and again in 2019).
Time and again – over both her time as House minority leader and as speaker – Pelosi demonstrated an uncanny knack for knowing what her members needed and when they needed it in order to get them to vote the way she wanted.
Two examples stand out.
The first came in November 2009, when Pelosi was tasked with passing then-President Barack Obama’s signature health care overhaul. The bill was massive and, like all massive bills, required an incredibly delicate coalition that could fall apart at any point. And she believed that Republicans would not offer any support, meaning that Pelosi had to get 218 votes within her own caucus or tell Obama that his legislation just wouldn’t make it.
As Time’s Molly Ball, who has written a book on Pelosi, wrote in 2020:
“Pelosi thought wooing Republicans was a fool’s errand. From the beginning, she predicted the legislation would get zero GOP votes. ‘Does the president not understand the way this game works? she asked Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. ‘He wants to get it done and be beloved, and you can’t have both—which does he want?’”
Pelosi knew how the game worked better than anyone else in the House. The Affordable Care Act passed the House in March 2010 by a 219-212 vote, with zero Republicans voting for it and 34 Democrats voting against it on final passage.
The second example of Pelosi’s vote-counting wizardry came in November 2021, when she shepherded President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill to passage.
As I wrote at the time:
“Consider the challenge Pelosi faced with this infrastructure bill – starting with the fact that she had only a three-seat majority, meaning that even a handful of renegade Democrats could scuttle the entire thing. Then add in the total lack of trust not only between House liberals and Senate moderates but also the decided lack of trust between House liberals and House moderates. And sprinkle it the fact that the entire bill had been at an impasse for months as both sides of the party wrangled for leverage on the broader $1.75 trillion social safety net legislation.”
The bill, which allocated $1.2 trillion for infrastructure spending around the country, passed by a 228-206 margin. Thirteen Republicans voted for it while six Democrats voted against it.
“Is Nancy Pelosi the most effective Speaker of all-time? (whether you like her agenda or not),” asked Bruce Mehlman, a Republican lobbyist, in a tweet with a screengrab of the final 228-206 winning vote for Pelosi.
In both instances, Pelosi took on what looked like an impossible task: Find a way to pass the sort of legislation that had failed, time and again, in years past. And yet, both times – and on plenty of other occasions too – Pelosi managed to get the job done.
Her record as a legislator is titanic – no matter where you stand on the legislation she championed. And at the foundation of her success is an innate understanding of human nature – a deep knowledge of what drives people to vote and how they can be influenced.
That ability runs higher in Pelosi than in any other modern member of Congress.