Primary Source: Conceding with Grace

From 1896 to 2016, defeated presidential contenders have conceded gracefully to their opponents.

ON. WM. MCKINLEY,” William Jennings Bryan wrote in his November 5, 1896 telegram to William McKinley, to whom Bryan had just lost the presidential election, “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.”

Bryan’s communiqué to his opponent in the presidential election is considered the first in American history, which kickstarted a tradition among losers in the race for the next 120 years: the concession. It has continued in some form in every election during that time: in telegrams, on the radio, in newsreels, and on live television.

William Jennings Bryan campaigns for the presidency, 1896.

Paul Corcoran, a professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia and a political theorist who studies U.S. presidential campaigns, says that, with campaigns becoming messier and more polarized, concessions play an increasingly important role in the election cycle. “The whole campaign is a formalized warfare,” he says. “The more I looked at the concession speech, the more I realized that it’s an important political function. There needs to be a ceremonial recognition of an end.” He adds that you can often learn more about someone by how they lose, rather than by how they win. It’s an opportunity for the loser to take the stage and convert loss into honor.

As Congress meets on January 6, 2021 to certify the election results between President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden, we examine how the previous seven defeated presidential contenders gracefully conceded the race to their victorious opponents, starting with George H. W. Bush, the last president to lose a reelection bid until Donald Trump did in 2020.

George H. W. Bush. (November 3, 1992)

Having served as president since 1989, President George H. W. Bush ran for a second term in 1992 but lost to Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, the first time since Jimmy Carter in 1980 that an incumbent lost his reelection bid. He conceded in Houston.

Thank you so much. Well, here’s the way I see it. Here’s the way we see it and the country should see it — that the people have spoken and we respect the majesty of the democratic system. I just called Governor Clinton over in Little Rock and offered my congratulations. He did run a strong campaign. I wish him well in the White House.

And I want the country to know that our entire Administration will work closely with his team to ensure the smooth transition of power. There is important work to be done, and America must always come first. So we will get behind this new president and wish him well. . . .

Now I ask that we stand behind our new president and regardless of our differences, all Americans share the same purpose: To make this, the world’s greatest nation, more safe and more secure and to guarantee every American a shot at the American dream.

Bob Dole. (November 5, 1996)

Longtime Kansas Senator Bob Dole ran to unseat President Clinton in 1996, but a booming economy lifted Clinton to a 379–159 electoral college landslide and a second term. Dole conceded in Washington D.C.

I was thinking on the way down in the elevator — tomorrow will be the first time in my life I don’t have anything to do. . . .

I’ve 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. . . .

So, I leave you all tonight with a full heart and a fervent prayer that we will meet again and we will meet often in this land where miracles are always happening, where every day is a new beginning and every life a blessing from God.

So I want to say thanks to each one of you here. Thank you for all you’ve done and all you will do in the future for America.

Al Gore. (December 13, 2000)

Upon the completion of Clinton’s final term, Vice President Al Gore ran to take up the mantle. Gore received the most votes in the race, but Texas Governor George W. Bush eked out a win in the electoral college after the Supreme Court ordered Florida to stop its recounts. Over a month after the election, Gore conceded.

Just moments ago, I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States. And I promised him that I wouldn’t call him back this time. . . .

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. . . .

Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity of the people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.

I also accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new president-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together in fulfillment of the great vision that our Declaration of Independence defines and that our Constitution affirms and defends. . . .

And now, my friends, in a phrase I once addressed to others, it’s time for me to go.

John Kerry. (November 2, 2004)

In 2004, it was the Democrats’ turn to try to unseat an incumbent. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry ran to take over the job from President Bush. Bush won a slim majority of the vote, the last Republican to do so, and Kerry, branded a “flip-flopper,” conceded.

In America it is vital that every vote count and that every vote be counted. But the outcome should be decided by voters, not a protracted legal process.

I would not give up this fight if there was a chance that we would prevail. But it is now clear that even when all the provisional ballots are counted, which they will be, there won’t be enough outstanding votes for us to be able to win Ohio. And therefore we cannot win this election. . . .

But in an American election, there are no losers. Because whether or not our candidates are successful, the next morning, we all wake up as Americans. And that — that is the greatest privilege and the most remarkable good fortune that can come to us on earth.

With that gift also comes obligation. We are required now to work together for the good of our country. In the days ahead, we must find common cause. We must join in common effort without remorse or recrimination, without anger or rancor. America is in need of unity and longing for a larger measure of compassion.

I hope President Bush will advance those values in the coming years.

John McCain. (November 4, 2008)

No incumbent nor vice president ran for the office in 2008, which instead became a contest between senators. John McCain, long a presence in the Senate, challenged newcomer Barack Obama, the first Black American chosen as a major party’s nominee. Obama won a decisive 365–173 electoral college victory and made racial history along the way. McCain acknowledged that in his concession.

This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight. . . .

Senator Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country, and I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.

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.

Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that. . . .

Tonight — tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Senator Obama, I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president.

Mitt Romney. (November 6, 2012)

President Obama was vulnerable in his run for a second term due to opposition to his health care plan and the rise of the Tea Party. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney attempted to take advantage and win the presidency back for the Republicans, but couldn’t overcome Obama’s handling of the economy after the Great Recession, and had to concede.

The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work. And we citizens also have to rise to the occasion. We look to our teachers and professors. We count on you not just to teach, but to inspire our children with a passion for learning and discovery.

We look to our pastors and priests and rabbis and counselors of all kinds to testify of the enduring principles upon which our society is built — honesty, charity, integrity and family. We look to our parents, for in the final analysis, everything depends on the success of our homes. We look to job creators of all kinds. We’re counting on you to invest, to hire, to step forward. And we look to Democrats and Republicans in government at all levels to put the people before the politics.

Hillary Clinton. (November 9, 2016)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the first female nominee for a major party, vied for the presidency in 2016 to further Democratic goals and was opposed by businessman Donald Trump. Although Clinton led in the polls throughout the campaign and received 3 million more votes, Trump pulled out a win in the electoral college. Clinton conceded the next morning.

I know how disappointed you feel, because I feel it too. And so do tens of millions of Americans who invested their hopes and dreams in this effort. This is painful, and it will be for a long time. But I want you to remember this.

Our campaign was never about one person, or even one election. It was about the country we love and building an America that is hopeful, inclusive, and big-hearted. We have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought. But I still believe in America, and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power.

We don’t just respect that. We cherish it. It also enshrines the rule of law; the principle we are all equal in rights and dignity; freedom of worship and expression. We respect and cherish these values, too, and we must defend them.

Donald Trump.

Former Vice President Joe Biden ran to unseat President Donald Trump in 2020 and won, with his victory certified in the electoral college on December 14, 2020. Trump, though, has not conceded. Instead, he has been spending his time citing baseless theories and challenging his loss in court and on Twitter. On January 2, 2021, he called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and attempted to persuade him to overturn his state’s election results, in which Trump lost.

But the ballots are corrupt. And you’re going to find that they are — which is totally illegal, it is more illegal for you than it is for them because, you know what they did and you’re not reporting it. That’s a criminal — that’s a criminal offense. And you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer. And that’s a big risk. But they are shredding ballots, in my opinion, based on what I’ve heard. And they are removing machinery and they’re moving it as fast as they can, both of which are criminal finds. And you can’t let it happen and you are letting it happen. You know, I mean, I’m notifying you that you’re letting it happen. So look. All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have because we won the state. . . .

So tell me, Brad, what are we going to do? We won the election and it’s not fair to take it away from us like this. And it’s going to be very costly in many ways. And I think you have to say that you’re going to re-examine it and you can re-examine it, but re-examine it with people that want to find answers, not people that don’t want to find answers.

I am currently working on Gold in the Fire, a book about Ah Toy, the first Chinese brothel madam in gold rush San Francisco.

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Noel C. Cilker

I’m a writer, interested in history’s stories and the links between then and now.