Presidential campaigns are essentially dramas, and for the past century, the moment of closure has come in the form of one simple act: the public concession.
There is no legal or constitutional requirement that the loser of a U.S. presidential election must concede. It began as a simple courtesy, with a telegram that William Jennings Bryan sent to his opponent, William McKinley, two days after the election of 1896.
Lincoln, Neb., November 5.
Hon. Wm. McKinley, Canton, Ohio: Senator Jones has just informed me that the returns indicate your election, and I hasten to extend my congratulations. We have submitted the issue to the American people and their will is law.
Those two sentences are considered to be the first public concession in U.S. presidential politics. The tradition has continued — in some form or another — in every election since.
Al Smith gave the first radio concession in 1928, after losing to Herbert Hoover. In 1940, moviegoers watched Wendell Willkie concede to Franklin D. Roosevelt in a newsreel. After losing to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, Adlai Stevenson gave his concession on live television.
Over the past 120 years, there have been 32 concession speeches.
And there’s a template, a roadmap that candidates follow for the speech they hoped they’d never have to give, says Paul Corcoran, a professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia and a political theorist who studies U.S. presidential campaigns.
The template includes four elements:
The statement of defeat: Although they never use the word “defeat,” a candidate will acknowledge their opponent’s victory and congratulate them.
I’ve sent the following wire to President Truman. My heartiest congratulations to you on your election and every good wish for a successful administration. — Thomas Dewey (1948), after his loss to Harry S. Truman
The call to unite: In a show of bipartisanship, a candidate will express support for their former opponent and call for unity under their leadership.
I have great faith that our people, Republicans, Democrats alike, will unite behind our next president. — Richard Nixon (1960), after his loss to John F. Kennedy
The celebration of democracy: The candidate reflects on the power of a democratic system and the millions of voters who participated in the election process.
I have a deep appreciation of the system, however, that lets people make a free choice about who will lead them for the next four years. — Jimmy Carter (1980), after his loss to Ronald Reagan
Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power. We don’t just respect that. We cherish it. — Hillary Clinton (2016), after her loss to Donald Trump
The vow to continue the fight: The loser speaks about the importance of the issues raised in the campaign and the policies their party stands for. They promise to continue fighting toward these goals and urge their supporters to do so as well.
I shall continue my personal commitment to the cause of human rights, to peace and to the betterment of man. — Hubert Humphrey (1968), after his loss to Richard Nixon
Corcoran says that you can often learn more about someone by how they lose, rather than by how they win. It’s an opportunity for the loser to take the stage and convert loss into honor.
In 2008, John McCain’s concession speech went a step further than the standard template. He acknowledged that the victory of his opponent, Barack Obama, ushered in a historic moment: the election of the country’s first African American president.
But maybe, the most dramatic concession in U.S. history was in 2000, part of a political saga that played out over 35 days.
After a remarkably close election, Al Gore called George W. Bush to concede — only to call less than an hour later to retract that concession. Gore contested the election results in Florida and a recount began.
The legal battle landed in the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against Gore in Bush v. Gore. On Dec. 13, 2000, then-Vice President Gore conceded again.
There is no law that says a concession has to happen. It’s just a custom, a tradition. But as elections get messier and uglier, and voters are polarized, Corcoran says a public concession is more important than ever.
“The whole campaign is a formalized warfare,” he says. “The more I looked at the concession speech, the more I realized that it’s an important political function. There needs to be a ceremonial recognition of an end.”
Ultimately, the concession isn’t about the losing candidate accepting the loss, it’s about their supporters accepting it.
Corcoran compares it to a Shakespearean drama. At the end, there’s a soliloquy or epilogue, usually given by a character standing over the fallen, strewn across the stage. The epilogue pronounces the scale of the tragedy, and how by bearing witness, the community can heal the wounds and restore harmony.
Shakespeare, says Corcoran, would have known how to write a good concession speech.
This story was produced by Joe Richman of Radio Diaries with help from Nellie Gilles, and edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. Thanks to Scott Farris, author of Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race But Changed the Nation. To hear more stories from Radio Diaries, subscribe to their podcast at www.radiodiaries.org.