How To Lose An Election: A Brief History Of The Presidential Concession Speech

Nov 2, 2020
Originally published on November 4, 2020 2:04 pm

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.

W.J. Bryan

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

Hillary Clinton pauses during her concession speech in New York following the 2016 election.
Andrew Harnik / AP

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.

YouTube

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.

YouTube

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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Presidential campaigns are essentially dramas, and we're in the final act of this one. For the past century, the moment of closure has come in the form of one simple act - the public concession. From the Radio Diaries podcast, Joe Richman brings us a history of how to lose an election.

JOE RICHMAN, BYLINE: There's no legal or constitutional requirement that the loser in a presidential election has to concede. It's a simple courtesy that began in 1896.

PAUL CORCORAN: Let me just try to find it here.

RICHMAN: Paul Corcoran is a political theorist who studies presidential campaigns. He pulls up a copy of a telegram that William Jennings Bryan sent to William McKinley two days after the election.

CORCORAN: And that telegram was this. (Reading) 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.

RICHMAN: Those two sentences are considered to be the first public concession in U.S. presidential politics, and 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 FDR in a newsreel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WENDELL WILLKIE: People of America, I accept the result of the election with complete goodwill.

RICHMAN: And in 1952, Adlai Stevenson gave his concession on live television.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADLAI STEVENSON: I urge you all to give to General Eisenhower the support he will need to carry out the great tasks that lie before him.

RICHMAN: Over the past 120 years, there have been 32 presidential concession speeches. Paul Corcoran has analyzed them, and he says they are all strikingly similar.

CORCORAN: When you read through concession speeches, you see that they operate according to a template. There is a kind of a road map for a speech that you hoped you would never have to write.

RICHMAN: Corcoran says that concessions always feature these four elements. First, there's the statement of defeat, although you should never actually use the word defeat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS DEWEY: I've sent the following wire to President Truman.

RICHMAN: Here's Thomas Dewey in 1948.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEWEY: My heartiest congratulations to you on your election and every good wish for a successful administration.

RICHMAN: Second is the call to unite. This is Richard Nixon conceding to JFK in 1960.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD NIXON: Our people, Republicans, Democrats alike, will unite behind our next president in seeing that America - in seeing...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) We want Nixon.

RICHMAN: Next, there's a celebration of democracy. Here's Hillary Clinton in 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power. And we don't just respect that; we cherish it.

RICHMAN: Finally, the loser vows to continue fighting for the goals of the vanquished party - Hubert Humphrey in 1968.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUBERT HUMPHREY: I shall continue my personal commitment to the cause of human rights, of peace and to the betterment of man.

RICHMAN: You can often learn more about someone by the way they lose than by the way they win, says Paul Corcoran. That's why he's so interested in presidential concession speeches.

CORCORAN: The concession speech is the loser's attempt to convert loss into honor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN MCCAIN: A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Senator Barack Obama to congratulate him.

(BOOING)

MCCAIN: Please.

RICHMAN: In 2008, John McCain's concession speech acknowledged that his defeat ushered in a historic moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCAIN: A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt's invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States.

RICHMAN: But maybe the most dramatic concession in U.S. history was in 2000. It played out over 36 days. Al Gore called George W. Bush to concede after a remarkably close election, only to call an hour later to take it back. After a recount and a Supreme Court case, Gore decided to concede again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AL GORE: Let there be no doubt. While I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.

RICHMAN: There's 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, Paul Corcoran says a public concession is more important than ever.

CORCORAN: The whole election campaign is a kind of a formalized warfare. And so the more I looked at the concession speech, the more I realized that it was an extremely important political function. There needs to be a kind of a ceremonial recognition of an end.

RICHMAN: Corcoran says that ultimately, the concession isn't about the losing candidate accepting the loss. It's about their supporters accepting it. He says it's useful to think about it like a Shakespearean drama. At the end, there's a soliloquy or an epilogue, usually given amongst the fallen, lying around on 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.

KELLY: Joe Richman is host of the Radio Diaries podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.