This segment originally aired Nov. 8, 2016, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.
After every U.S. presidential election since the Civil War, the transition of power from one administration to the next has been peaceful. The losing candidate, while disappointed, exhausted, even embittered, has demonstrated dignity in defeat and conceded to the president-elect.
While there’s no legal requirement that the loser concede defeat, it’s tradition for the defeated candidate to unofficially legitimize the results through a concession speech.
The speech, a literary genre unto itself, serves three purposes: to give the defeated candidate one last chance to offer a vision for the country, to secure a place in history, and to begin the process of uniting an electorate divided by the electoral process.
“What it says to people is the election is a settled matter and it is time for people to move on, [even though] there are differences of opinion,” said Lindsay Hayes, speechwriter for the McCain-Palin and Romney-Ryan campaigns in 2008 and 2012. “It’s important. That’s what creates a sense of continuity, stability. And people need that in their government.”
The expectation that the losing candidate gives a gracious concession speech was established with the first televised concession, by Richard Nixon to John F. Kennedy in 1960. “I want Senator Kennedy to know, and I want all of you to know, that certainly if this trend does continue, and he does become our next president, that he will have my wholehearted support and yours, too.”
In the final days of an election cycle, someone within each campaign is tasked with writing two speeches: one for a victory, the other for a defeat. Hillary Clinton’s staffers verified Tuesday morning that the candidate spent time on the campaign plane Monday evening working on the two versions of the speech.
For some speechwriters, it could be bad luck not to prepare two different speeches. “It is kind of a political superstition,” said Jeff Nussbaum, partner at West Wing Writers and former speechwriting staffer for Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. “Even if you know with great confidence – or good confidence – you’re going to win, you have that speech in your back pocket.”
One could argue that the concession is more memorable, and more important to our democracy, than the acceptance. “Persuading your supporters that this one election that didn’t go their way is less important than the institutions of democracy and the supremacy of the will of the people. That is the basis of our entire government,” said Stephen Krupin, former chief speechwriter for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
A notable show of dignity in defeat was Walter Mondale’s 1984 concession to Ronald Reagan: “The [people’s] choice was made peacefully. And although I would have rather won tonight, we rejoice in our democracy. We rejoice in the freedom of a wonderful people. And we accept their verdict.”
Al Gore, in his historic concession to George W. Bush after the recount in 2000, borrowed a quote from his father’s senatorial concession speech: “As for the battle that ends tonight, I do believe, as my father once said, that no matter how hard the loss, defeat may serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out.”
If her concession to then–Sen. Barack Obama in the Democratic primary in 2008 is any indication, we can expect a gracious concession from Clinton if she’s called on to offer one Tuesday night.
There may be a legitimate reason for neither candidate to concede the election. In the rare case that the Electoral College cannot declare a clear winner, a concession may be delayed for some time.
But for the most part, losers concede quickly to help the country move on. “In conceding, one of the goals is to help your supporters who are feeling angry place that anger in the proper place,” Nussbaum said. “If someone refuses to concede, that anger has no place to go, no place appropriate to go.”
Which brings us to Donald Trump, who appears to be disinterested in accepting defeat of any kind and has continually warned supporters that the process itself is “rigged.”
On Election Day, Trump was noncommittal. When asked if he’d concede if the networks call the race for Clinton, Trump said, “We’ll see what happens.” On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” his son Donald Trump Jr. was asked if his father would concede tonight if Clinton were a “clear-cut winner” in the Electoral College.
“Of course,” he said. “All we’ve wanted was a fair fight.”