During the final presidential debate on Wednesday, Donald Trump told moderator Chris Wallace that he wouldn't necessarily concede if he lost the race. ""I'll keep you in suspense, OK?" he said, as a million journalists started writing their debate recaps.
As Wallace told Trump, losing graciously and respecting the results of elections is a long tradition in America. Losers always make noises about how important and great the process is—even if they suffer a controversial or close defeat, a la Al Gore, and even if they sympathize with Dick Tuck (seriously that was his name), who after losing the 1966 race for California State Senate quipped, "The voters have spoken, the bastards."
Has anyone ever flat-out refused to concede, and what would happen if someone did? To answer these questions, I called up James McCann, a political scientist at Purdue University who specializes in concession speeches and comparative politics. Here's what he told me:
VICE: Have we ever had a major presidential candidate not concede after losing the election?
James McCann: The concession speech is always given, but there are choices a candidate makes in how to give a concession speech. So one way to do it would be like the Al Gore example. Even when the most unusual thing happens, you show a kind of civil-spiritedness by conceding and very publicly kind of acknowledging the importance of democracy, etc. etc. even if there were irregularities or very unusual things happening during the election and the vote count afterwards. To others, the concession speech is meant to set them up for a later contest, so when you concede, you say, "Yes, I acknowledge we lost, but the fight goes on. Our ideas did not lose. We'll have another day to shine." That kind of thing. And that's very understandable, too. People in public life are careerists, for the most part. And you wanna always think about the next thing.
But Trump's not a careerist that way. He's never held public office.
In Trump's case, I don't know what his next thing would be. He doesn't have the same incentive to be big-hearted. If he says this is gonna be a one-off and he's never gonna run for president again, but if he does want to set himself up for some other professional activity, like start a new media network that could rival Fox [News], then you could see how he would have an incentive to be extremely defiant.
What happens if he just doesn't concede or says the election was rigged?
Say he's claiming fraud or irregularities in the vote or hijacking or espionage or people stuffing ballots. If that's his argument, then there's a heavy burden of proof on that. You can't just say that. You need some evidence if you're gonna be compelling.
I say this as a guy who has been an election observer and is familiar with the system here in the US—it would be extremely hard to have major election fraud. Our system of electioneering is so fragmented. We have this principle of federalism in the United States where it's really on a local level that you see election administration. There can be all manner of errors: A voter, for instance, could mistakenly cast a ballot for a candidate he or she doesn't like. But it's very hard to imagine any systematic violence.
Could he sue the election board, and would that hold up the process?
He could litigate it out and there would be a relevant court depending on the nature of the charges. Everything is subject to litigation if you want to press charges. If Trump wants to engage lawyers in various parts and if he has deep pockets to fund a lot of legal action, we might see a lot of challenges. But you would need evidence at the end of the day. He's sort of litigating this out in the public opinion right now. He's trying to say that the entire world is against him, and it's the mass media. That obviously is not something you litigate. It's just a rhetorical claim.
But there would be no disruption that I could foresee. In fact, the electoral vote is the one that counts. And electors, in principle, at a kind of abstract level, have the freedom to vote however they want. There's an avenue of litigation, I suppose, if Trump wanted to argue about improprieties with the selection of electoral voters or if he wanted to systematically cherry-pick or fight certain state results. It all depends on how the vote ultimately shapes out.
I seriously doubt that [Trump refusing to concede] would be disruptive. What it can do is be very destabilizing. We've already seen unrest, some firebombing, this kind of thing [during this campaign]. So it's possible that the worst-case scenario would be if Trump claims in nonspecific ways that the system was rigged and that he was robbed and encourages people in ways to be violent—then it's a law and order challenge. And I have no doubt the authorities would respond to whatever riot situation would occur.
Is conceding just a symbolic gesture then?
Well a symbolic gesture, I think, is important. It's like when some NFL players don't stand up during the national anthem––that means something, it's conveying important information about an opinion they have and it's getting people to talk. But the consent of the loser to democratic norms is a big deal.
Let's put it this way: If you were a comparative political scientist evaluating the quality of democracy abroad in one of these newer democracies, one of the indicators you'd be on the lookout for is whether the losers stay beaten or whether they militate outside your formal institutions. If you see the latter, that would be indicative of democracy turning into something else––authoritarianism or something bad. There's a ceremonial part of elections, which is I think critically important in terms of maintaining a democratic system, because at the end of the day, there has to be a reservoir of trust and good will and the ability to let bygones be bygones.
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