Election 2020: Concession speeches not required, but historically a courtesy

A U.S. presidential candidate has never refused to concede defeat once the votes were all counted and legal challenges were resolved.

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Donald Trump, who has defied convention since entering politics, could break that tradition. He has launched legal battles in several states hoping to overturn the electoral advantage currently held by Joe Biden. Although Biden is the President-elect, Trump has referred to the results as “stolen,” The New York Times reported. He also has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, according to the newspaper.

Trump has every legal right to contest the election.

“As a legal matter, a candidate unwilling to concede can contest the election into January,” according to an August 2020 report by the Transition Integrity Project.

But if Trump exhausts all legal avenues and Biden is certified as the 46th president, will Trump make a concession speech? Or even send a concession tweet?

Not likely. And, he does not have to. Concession speeches do not have the force of law.

“Electoral concessions are not in any way binding; to the contrary, they arise out of, and are a nod to, a candidate’s faith in other electoral norms,” Ryan Neville-Shepard, a University of Arkansas professor who specializes in political communication, wrote in a 2018 column for The Washington Post.

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Stephen A. Douglas never gave a concession speech after losing to Abraham Lincoln in 1860, but he did hold Lincoln’s hat as the new president gave his inaugural address.

Don’t look for Trump to be holding Biden’s hat on Inauguration Day. However, concession speeches do have a soothing effect on the electorate, marking an end to an election, however contentious.

John R. Vile, dean of political science at Middle Tennessee State University, argues that concession speeches matter even if it does not have legal consequences. Vile believes that words matter.

What was written about Trump’s campaigning tactics during the 2016 campaign foreshadowed what has happened this year.

“Even if he accepts the legitimacy of the election, that very pointed rhetoric will stick,” Robert Lehrman, a former speechwriter for Al Gore, told McClatchy News Service. “He’s already put the point to his supporters that the election is rigged.”

“He is consumed by the effort not to be defined as a loser,” Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University, told McClatchy News Service. “I would expect him to be bitter, and to be angry, and in some ways to deny the reality of what just happened.”

Those comments became moot after Trump defeated Hillary Clinton four years ago.

Candidates have used various means to concede a presidential race.

Vile said some early presidential candidates sent congratulatory notes to their opponents. But the first modern instance of a public concession came when William Jennings Bryan sent William McKinley a cordial telegram in 1896, according to NPR.

“We have submitted the issue to the American people and their will is law,” Bryan wrote.

According to National Geographic, Bryan was puzzled by the attention given to his concession.

“This exchange of messages was much commented upon at the time, though why it should be considered extraordinary I do not know,” Bryan wrote. “We were not fighting each other, but stood as the representatives of different political ideas, between which the people were to choose.”

According to The Hill, Al Smith conceded the 1928 race to Herbert Hoover in a radio broadcast. In 1940, Wendell Willkie used newsreels that would be played in theaters to broadcast his concession speech to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Adlai Stevenson was the first candidate to concede on television when he lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952.

Some candidates have not been gracious in defeat. In 1916, Charles Evans Hughes took two weeks to congratulate Woodrow Wilson on his reelection, National Geographic reported. That race had been so close, it took two days to count the votes, the magazine reported.

According to The Hill, Hughes' concession note to Wilson took so long, the president described it as “moth-eaten.”

In 1944, Thomas E. Dewey conceded defeat on the radio the day after the election, as Roosevelt won his fourth term as president. In his 2011 book, “Almost President,” historian Scott Farris wrote that Roosevelt was irritated that Dewey did not call him or send a telegram. He later wired Dewey, “I thank you for your statement, which I heard over the air a few minutes ago.”

Dewey did send a note to Harry S. Truman when he lost the 1948 race, according to The Hill.

Cordiality was strained in 2000. Gore called George W. Bush to concede on election night, but retracted it an hour later when the race tightened up in Florida.

“Let me make sure I understand,” Bush asked, according to The Associated Press. “You’re calling me back to retract your concession?”

“You don’t have to get snippy about this,” Gore retorted.

“It’s unbelievable,” Karen Hughes, Bush’s communication director, told the The Associated Press.

Gore filed a lawsuit in Florida for a recount, but Bush went to the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the decision, which it did in Bush v. Gore. The decision on Dec. 12, 2000, gave Bush a 537-vote margin in Florida -- and the presidency. Gore conceded to Bush for the second time the next day, ending weeks of legal battles.

“And I promised him that I wouldn’t call him back this time,” Gore said.

Other losing candidates have used humor to ease the sting.

Sen. Bob Dole was on the losing end of the ticket with President Gerald Ford when they were defeated by Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale in 1976, but he was ready with a quip, according to The Associated Press.

“Contrary to reports that I took the loss badly, I want to say that I went home and slept like a baby,” Dole said. “Every two hours I woke up and cried.”

Historian Michael Beschloss, who has written nine books about the presidency, said that in 1992, President George H.W. Bush, who lost his 1992 reelection bid to Bill Clinton, quoted Winston Churchill and said he had been given the “Order of the Boot.”

Humor can mask a losing candidate’s pain, but that does not mean the losing candidates were happy about conceding.

After losing to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, Adlai Stevenson paraphrased a statement made by Abraham Lincoln: “It felt like a little boy who stubbed his toe in the dark. He was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh.”

Jimmy Carter, in his concession speech after losing to Ronald Reagan in 1980, said, “I promised you four years ago that I would never lie to you, so I can’t stand here tonight and say it doesn’t hurt.”

If Trump does make a concession speech, it could be very similar to Richard Nixon’s comments after he lost the 1962 gubernatorial race in California, McClatchy News Service reported.

“Dwelling upon defeat contradicts a basic American commitment to success,” historian Paul Corcoran wrote in a 1994 article, “Presidential Concession Speeches: The Rhetoric of Defeat.”

Corcoran said there is a format most candidates follow in a concession speech. That template includes four elements, Corcoran said: the statement of defeat (although most candidates do not use the word “defeat”), a call to unite, the celebration of democracy, and a vow to continue the fight.

Corcoran compared elections to a Shakespearean drama, NPR reported. When it ends, there is usually a soliloquy or epilogue, which pronounces the scale of the tragedy. The speaker encourages the audience to heal the wounds and restore harmony.

“It is natural tonight to feel some disappointment.” John McCain said in 2008 after losing to Barack Obama. “But tomorrow, we must move beyond it, and work together to get our country moving again.”

“Americans love winners, but they also embrace eloquent losers,” Richard Chin of Knight-Ridder wrote in 2000.

Interestingly, University of Iowa historian Ken Cmiel wrote that the best concession speech might have been given by Nixon in 1960 after he lost to John F. Kennedy.

“I have great faith about the future of our country,” Nixon said after his razor-thin loss. “I have great faith that our people -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- will unite behind our next president in seeing that America … does meet the challenge which destiny has placed upon us."

Shakespeare, Corcoran said, would have written a good concession speech.