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Why Defeated Presidential Candidates Deliver Concession Speeches

The tradition dates back to 1896, when William Jennings Bryan conceded the election to William McKinley via telegram

“We have submitted the issue to the American people and their will is law,” wrote Democrat William Jennings Bryan (pictured here on the campaign trail) in an 1896 telegram to Republican William McKinley. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonianmag.com

When Democrat William Jennings Bryan received word of the results of the 1896 presidential election, he promptly dispatched a telegram to his opponent, Republican William McKinley.

“Senator [James K.] Jones has just informed me that the returns indicate your election, and I hasten to extend my congratulations,” wrote the Nebraska politician in the November 5 missive, written two days after the election. “We have submitted the issue to the American people and their will is law.”

Bryan’s conciliatory comments marked the start of a hallmark of modern elections: the presidential concession speech. Though this acknowledgement of defeat carries no actual legal weight, it’s crucial for demonstrating “a continuing commitment to peaceful transitions of power,” as presidential historian Robert Dallek tells the Los Angeles Times’ James Rainey.

Dallek adds, “[The messages] signal to supporters that they need to join the defeated candidate in accepting the loss.”

If President Donald Trump refuses to concede the 2020 election to former Vice President Joe Biden, he will become the first presidential candidate in more than a century to break with the tradition. Since 1900, 32 failed candidates competing across 30 elections have delivered concession speeches, report Joe Richman and Nelli Gilles for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Even before Bryan’s 1896 telegram brought concessions into the public sphere, some defeated candidates sent their opponents well-wishes via private letters, says political scientist John. R. Vile to National Geographic’s Amy McKeever.

Democrat Al Smith was the first to concede by radio, offering congratulations to Republican Herbert Hoover after losing the 1928 election. Twenty-four years later, in 1952, Democrat Adlai Stevenson addressed supporters on television after losing the presidency to Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. More recently, candidates including Democrat Hillary Clinton, Republican Mitt Romney and Republican John McCain, have followed in Stevenson’s footsteps, delivering comments broadcast live on network television.

Most concessions follow an established format, political theorist Paul Corcoran tells NPR’s “All Things Considered.” First, the candidate acknowledges their loss, albeit without using such charged words as “defeat.” Next, they call for unity—in 1960, Republican Richard Nixon said, “I have great faith that our people, Republicans, Democrats alike, will unite behind our next president,” Democrat John F. Kennedy—and celebrate the power of the democratic process before concluding with a vow to continue fighting for their party’s platform.

Speaking with Time’s Lily Rothman in 2016, Corcoran noted that close elections tend to yield “the most unifying speeches,” as the losing candidate realizes the importance of bringing the nation together following a divisive race. Landslide victories, on the other hand, are more likely to produce “rowdier” speeches designed to raise party morale. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 concession fell into the latter category, with the Republican senator joking, “I will devote—being unemployed as of Jan. 3 or thereabouts—I'll have a lot of time to devote to this party, to its leadership and to the strengthening of the party.”

For some candidates, defeat “is too bitter for jokes,” writes Gillian Brockell for the Washington Post. Historically, however, even those with ample reason to despair over the election’s results have accepted the tally as the will of the people.

After a dismal showing in the 1984 election, Democrat Walter Mondale, who won only Washington, D.C. and his home state of Minnesota, said, “We rejoice in the freedom of a wonderful people, and we accept their verdict”; in 2016, Hillary Clinton—who won the popular vote but failed to secure the required 270 electoral votes—reflected, “I still believe in America, and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future.”

Some losing candidates strike a less conciliatory tone. Republican Charles Evan Hughes, for instance, took two weeks to concede victory to incumbent Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Hughes actually accused his opponent of fraud before grudgingly declaring, “In the absence of proof of fraud no such cry should be raised to becloud the title of the next President of the United States.”

Another less-than-gracious losing candidate, Republican Thomas Dewey, defied tradition by refusing to personally congratulate President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Instead, notes historian Scott Farris in Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race But Changed the Nation, the Democratic incumbent learned of his opponent’s concession via a radio broadcast. In response, Roosevelt sent Dewey a “terse telegram” saying, “I thank you for your statement, which I have heard over the air a few minutes ago.”

Perhaps the most protracted example of a presidential concession speech dates to 2000, when Democrat Al Gore called Republican George W. Bush to admit defeat, only to retract his words hours later after learning that the media called Florida prematurely; the state’s electoral status was, in fact, still “too close to call.” The contested election only drew to a close in mid-December, at which point Gore delivered what the Post deems the “gold standard” of concession speeches. As Brockell writes, “This speech had everything: opening joke, congratulations, acceptance of the result, a prayer, a call to heal, and the teeny-tiniest hint of bitterness.”

In Gore’s own words:

Almost a century and a half ago, Senator Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln, who had just defeated him for the presidency: “Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.” Well, in that same spirit, I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country.

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