The good news for McCarthy? It may very well not matter.
The election of the Speaker of the Chamber is governed by different rules than those for other votes in the Chamber. For example, legislators vote for specific people, either someone nominated by party caucuses or literally anyone else. In the 2019 Presidential Election, Joe Biden received a vote not only by not serving in the House, but by not holding any public office. Rep. Anthony Brindisi (DN.Y.) said “Joseph Biden” and his vote was recorded.
In other respects, however, the election follows normal rules. It’s not that the president has to win the support of a majority of the house, any more than any legislative vote needs 218 votes. Instead, the speaker must simply win a majority of votes cast “for a person by name”, such as voting “Joseph Biden”. Thus, if 20 legislators decide not to vote at all or to vote “present”, which is not a name, only 208 votes out of the 415 votes cast would be necessary for a president to be elected. (There is also had opportunities where the House could not agree on a speaker, so they simply voted to allow a plurality votes cast to determine the speaker, but not recently.)
Imagine the majority of McCarthy landing at, say, 222 Republicans. If Norman and the other GOP skeptics choose to vote “present” or abstain, McCarthy needs only 216 votes to be elected president – out of 217 other Republicans.
Similar situations have happened before. The House moved to a permanent composition of 435 seats in 1929. Since then there have been 49 votes for the speaker, excluding two in which the speaker was chosen by voice vote. Most, but not all, of these votes have taken place at the start of a new Congress.
Here are the results, with the bar of 218 votes indicated.
You can see that there are a lot of votes for people in addition to candidates from both parties; we will come back to it.
But there have been four elections in which the winner received a majority of the votes cast but less than 218 votes. This includes the election of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) in 2021. Only 427 votes were cast for nominees, meaning Pelosi needed 214 votes to be elected president. She got 216.
Previously, Speakers’ votes for people who were not nominated by either of the two major parties were given to third-party members of the House. In the 1930s, progressive legislators routinely got a handful of votes. In recent years, however, there has been an explosion of protest votes – usually carefully orchestrated to avoid jeopardizing the path to the presidency of the big party candidate who ultimately wins. In 2019, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) received five votes for president, but Pelosi was elected president anyway.
In other words, the question is not whether McCarthy has 218 votes. It’s about whether lawmakers who don’t want to vote for him vote for someone else, potentially forcing the president’s election on a second or third ballot. Or further; those votes from speakers who settled for a plurality followed dozens of votes that resulted in no one getting a majority.
The bigger question, really, is whether the lawmakers loudly protesting McCarthy’s leadership actually want to block him or just be heard protesting loudly. We will not know the answer to this question until the votes for speaker are cast.