The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why would Pelosi step down? Parties don’t usually throw out congressional leaders after electoral losses.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks during a weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in June. (AP)
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Should Nancy Pelosi step down as House Democratic leader? Some congressional Democrats and political pundits have been calling for that since Jon Ossoff’s narrow defeat in the Georgia special election, coming after several bad electoral cycles for House Democrats. Some claim that congressional leaders typically step aside when their party does poorly in national elections.

But that’s not so.

Even repeated electoral defeats do not drive party leaders to step down.

To check, we looked at patterns of leadership change in Congress since the early 20th century. Party leaders typically do not step down after poor electoral showings. Of course, some have. For instance, former speaker Dennis Hastert resigned when Republicans lost control of the House in 2006. And after Democrats lost their Senate majority in 2014, Harry Reid decided to step away. Poor election results contributed to the end of Newt Gingrich’s, Charles Halleck’s, and Joe Martin’s tenures as GOP House leader in 1998, 1965, and 1959, respectively.

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But still more leaders stayed on after electoral losses.

Consider, for instance, Dick Gephardt, who became House Democratic leader as his party became the minority in 1995. Gephardt stayed minority leader through four successive election cycles — even though his party failed to win back its majority. In 2003, Gephardt left the leadership to run for president, not because his party was struggling or because he faced any real pressure to step aside.

In the Senate, Democrat Robert Byrd became Senate majority leader in 1977. Democrats lost the majority in 1980 and didn’t regain control in 1982 or 1984 — but Byrd kept the top spot. What’s more, after heading off challenges to his leadership, he stayed on as leader for one more term after Democrats regained their Senate majority in 1986.

Something similar happened with Byrd’s contemporary, Republican Bob Dole. Dole became majority leader in 1985, and stayed on as Republican leader after the GOP lost control of the Senate the following year — and kept that job even as the Republicans stayed in the minority all the way until 1994.

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We find a similar pattern earlier in congressional history. Democrat Sam Rayburn (1940 to 1961) and Republican Joe Martin (1939 to 1959) kept their leadership posts while their parties gained and lost their House majorities twice. Alben Barkley not only remained Senate Democratic leader after his party lost control of the Senate in 1946 — but was popular enough that Harry Truman picked him to be his vice presidential candidate in his winning 1948 run. Nicholas Longworth remained House Republican leader even after his party’s devastating loss in the 1930 elections, leaving only after contracting pneumonia and suffering an unfortunate case of death.

These are just a few examples of this very common pattern.

So why do some party leaders survive electoral disappointments?

1. Voters aren’t voting based on congressional leaders

Congressional leaders are far less visible than presidents, and probably don’t influence voters’ decisions. While presidents’ popularity bolsters or hinders their parties’ performance in elections, there’s little evidence that congressional party leaders have a similar effect.

2. Congressional leaders are judged by things other than the party’s electoral success

They’re also judged by, say, whether they are prolific fundraisers or skillful legislative tacticians — which can quiet dissatisfaction about electoral disasters.

In fact, for some leaders, electoral success might pose a challenge. Speaker Carl Albert’s decision to retire came following an enormous electoral victory for his party in 1974 that left him out of place among new liberal Democrats who viewed him as ineffective. And John Boehner’s leadership was challenged in 2015 after newly elected Tea Party Republicans gave the GOP their largest House majority in nearly a century.

3. You can’t beat someone with no one.

This seems to be a bigger issue for Democrats than for Republicans. The broader diversity of perspectives and backgrounds in the Democratic Party makes it harder for Democrats to find replacement candidates that can please a clear majority, while the GOP’s relative homogeneity makes it easier. Not surprisingly, then, we find that Republicans are far more willing than the Democrats to challenge and force out their leaders.

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Pelosi is hardly a rule-breaker

This brings us back to Nancy Pelosi. Her decision to remain Democratic leader and her party’s willingness to let her stay on are not that unusual. In fact, she is joining a long line of congressional leaders, particularly Democratic ones, who have weathered electoral disappointments and continue to lead their caucus. At least for now, she is likely to survive. She’s popular among Democrats, even if she’s hated by Republicans, and the party does not have a clear alternative. Pelosi remains a prolific fundraiser, and a “master legislator.”

For now, anyway, her party still believes she’s worth the trouble.

James M. Curry is assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah and author of Legislating in the Dark (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

David Karol is associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and the author of Party Position Change in American Politics: Coalition Management (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

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