Conceding an Election

"Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead."

-Hillary Clinton, 2016

William Jennings Bryan lost three presidential elections: 1896, 1900, and 1908

By Brendan Wilson

“And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.” This was not the speech Al Gore wanted to give in December 2000, but knew conceding to George W. Bush was the show of unity the nation needed following a historically contentious election. “I call on all Americans — I particularly urge all who stood with us — to unite behind our next president.”


Though the concession speech is not a legal requirement, it has become a time-honored tradition in which the losing candidate graciously offers congratulations to the victor and calls on the nation to support the new administration. It reinforces the importance of that hallmark of American politics: the peaceful transfer of power.


Of course, calls for unity were not always heeded. After losing the 1860 presidential race to Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas reportedly told the president-elect “Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.” Of course, eleven states famously had other plans.


The first truly public concession was a telegram sent to the victorious William McKinley in the 1896 election, in which William Jennings Bryan told the president-elect, “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.


William Jennings Bryan campaigning in 1896 - Credit: Bettmann Archive

As technology improved, concession speeches reached larger audiences. Democrat Al Smith was the first to console his supporters over the radio after losing to Herbert Hoover in 1928. In 1940 Wendle Wilkie offered his congratulations to FDR on a newsreel recording. Twelve years later, a disappointed Adlai Stevenson acknowledged General Dwight Eisenhower’s victory on live television.


Controversial election results often led to memorable concessions. The 1912, Republican Charles Evan Hughes claimed that rampant fraud had delivered Woodrow Wilson to the White House, but acknowledged that the show must go on, “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.” Richard Nixon was certain that Chicago mayor Richard Daley dug up the cemeteries to secure victory for John F. Kennedy, but conceded anyway. “I have great faith that our people, Republicans, Democrats alike,” he told his supports, “will unite behind our next president.”

The gold standard was set by John McCain in 2008. After silencing supporters booing Barrack Obama, he called for unity, saying, “I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.”



This year, the pandemic led state legislatures to loosen restrictions on mail-in-voting, increasing voter turnout to record levels and ultimately leading to Joe Biden's electoral college victory. In the months leading up to November 3rd, President Trump was, lets just say... vocal about what was certain to be widespread fraud. He predicted that mail-in-ballot initiatives would lead to "disaster," claiming that "universal mail-in voting is going to be catastrophic, it's going to make our country the laughing stock of the world."


It goes without saying that the last two weeks have not been the finest in our republic's history, but everyone needs to relax with the hyperbole. Democrats like Jim Clyburn are completely out of line with comments like, "That's what Hitler did in Germany. He was elected chancellor and then because he successfully discredited the news media, took over the churches." Come on! Comparing Trump to Hitler is a dangerous false equivalence designed to play on our worst fears. On the other side of the coin, Rudy Giuliani and OANN have crossed the line on.... well pretty much everything.


Was there funny business? Probably. But most mainstream leaders on both sides doubt any irregularities that might have occurred were enough to tip the scales. As of this writing, there has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf (an administration official) last Thursday declared this to be "the most secure election in US history." A long list of Republican leaders have already congratulated Joe Biden.


Despite this, we shouldn't expect a concession much more extensive than the one above, which the president later denied was a concession in an all-caps tweet storm that included "I WON THE ELECTION!" That's unfortunate, because we are a dangerously divided country that is about to be living under divided government, and it would be nice to see something resembling the traditional concession, even if it's in tweet form.




Kristof, N. (2020, November 11). When Trump Vandalizes Our Country. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/11/opinion/trump-election-fraud.html


Richman, J., & Gilles, N. (2020, November 02). How To Lose An Election: A Brief History Of The Presidential Concession Speech. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2020/11/02/929085584/how-to-lose-an-election-a-brief-history-of-the-presidential-concession-speech


Rosemary Rossi | November 7, 2. (2020, November 07). Watch Presidential Concession Speeches Through the Years (Videos). Retrieved November 15, 2020, from https://www.thewrap.com/presidential-concession-speeches-clinton-nixon-bush-gore-mccain-romney/amp/


Solly, M. (2020, November 09). Why Defeated Presidential Candidates Deliver Concession Speeches. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-defeated-presidential-candidates-deliver-concession-speeches-180976252/