November 6, 2020

Concession speeches are an election night standard, but it has not always been that way.

Political theorist and historian Paul E. Corcoran looked back to study concession speeches in history and found them to be remarkably predictable. He told Time:

The basics of that formula are such: the speaker says that he or she has congratulated the winner — usually not that he or she has lost; the word “concede” is rarely heard — to the opponent; the speaker calls for unity; the speaker summons supporters to both accept the result and to continue to fight for their cause in the future. Corcoran identified certain formalities of the process around the speech, too. The media demands the speech; the loser speaks of “a heroic sacrifice, not to fate but to the popular will,” as Corcoran puts it; and the winner responds by speaking of how gracious the loser was.

As that formula developed, he says, the concession speech — something that is the product of the 20th-century media environment rather than any law or election policy — took on an important role. As it became something that voters expected to hear, the call for unity became more important. As Corcoran wrote in the ’90s, it became “an institutionalized public speech act integral to democratic life and the legitimacy of authority.”

The most important part of a concession speech, Corcoran found, is not whether the candidate accepts defeat, but whether his/her followers accept the loss.

It makes sense, Corcoran says, that analysis of past concession speeches shows that the closest elections usually lead to the most unifying speeches, as both sides see the importance of coming together after a tough fight. (Landslides, on the other hand, may lead to rowdier speeches like Barry Goldwater’s in 1964 and George McGovern’s in 1972, as it’s more important to keep up party morale than to bring people together to accept a result.)

And so let me close with a collection of some of the most gracious concession speeches of our time, thanks to NPR.

Mitt Romney: I so wish — I so wish that I had been able to fulfill your hopes to lead the country in a different direction. But the nation chose another leader. And so, Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation. Thank you, and God bless America.

John McCain: Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country. I applaud him for it and offer him my sincere sympathy that his beloved grandmother did not live to see this day, though our faith assures us she is at rest in the presence of her creator and so very proud of the good man she helped raise.

Bob Dole: Let me say that I’ve talked to President Clinton. We had a good visit, and I congratulated him. And I’ve said… (some of his supporters started booing)

No. No. No. Wait a minute. Wait a minute.

I have said repeatedly in this — I have said repeatedly in this campaign that the president was my opponent and not my enemy. And I wish him well. And I pledge my support in whatever advances the cause of a better America because that’s what the race was about in the first place, a better America as we go into the next century.

Al Gore: 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.

This piece originally ran as part of Covering COVID-19 on Nov. 3.

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