Anatomy of a presidential concession speech
Sometime as early as next week, Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will have to decide whether to concede the election – and how.
Every almost-president has handled the moment in his own way. Some have been nostalgic, others hopeful. A few have been remarkably gracious to their opponent. All gave a clear concession and praised America’s democratic system.
To lose a presidential election is a tremendously emotional and wrenching experience for people.
Robert Lehrman, former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore
There are indications that if Trump loses – even after any recount – he could break from tradition. He’s tarred the election as a “rigged” process, and in the last debate would not say whether he would concede if he lost.
“He is consumed by the effort not to be defined as a loser, so it’s hard to predict his response to such a difficult moment,” said Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University who’s written on concession speeches. “I would expect him to be bitter, and to be angry, and in some ways to deny the reality of what just happened.”
Here are the four traditional components of a presidential concession speech, which been constant over the last 60 years.
Step 1: Thank your supporters and show your pain – but not too much
“You gave deeply from yourselves and performed magnificently, and you inspired us and you humbled us. You've been the very best we could have imagined.” Mitt Romney, Nov. 7, 2012
The losing candidate has to walk the line between channeling supporters’ feelings and projecting too much bitter disappointment.
“Part of speechwriting for candidates is a sense of the appropriate. And in a moment of electoral defeat or victory, you should be showing humility before the people,” said Clark Judge, a former White House speechwriter for Ronald Reagan.
It’s up to the candidate to set the tone for their supporters that will allow them to move forward, especially those who worked for their campaigns.
Thank you so much. You just have no idea how warming and how generous that welcome is, your love is, your affection. And I'm gratified by it.
John Kerry on Nov. 3, 2004
“You have to thank all of the people who worked their hearts out for you,” said Robert Lehrman, a former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. “Admit it hurts for you too, don’t pretend this doesn’t affect you at all.”
In his 1952 concession to Dwight Eisenhower, Democrat Adlai Stevenson expressed himself by telling a story about Abraham Lincoln’s response when he was asked about losing an election.
“(Lincoln) said he felt like a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark,” he told his supporters. ”That he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh.”
Step 2: Concede and congratulate your opponent
“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.” John McCain on Nov. 5, 2008
The trickiest and most important element of a concession speech is conceding while still sounding sincere, according to Lehrman.
“For Hillary Clinton to say she congratulates Trump on fighting the good fight would sound very inauthentic,” he said. “But she could say to his supporters ‘My quarrel was with him, not with you.’”
Trump could struggle as well.
Let me say that I've talked to President Clinton. We had a good visit, and I congratulated him.
Bob Dole on Nov. 5, 1996
“He’s not going to go out and say ‘Hillary I’m sorry, you do look presidential and you’re not a crook,’” Lehrman said.
Trump’s speech could look very similar to Richard Nixon’s famous 1962 concession of the race for California governor, Zelizer predicts. Nixon spent most of his speech criticizing the press.
“Now that all the members of the press are so delighted that I have lost, I'd like to make a statement of my own,” he began his remarks.
Step 3: Praise the democratic system
“Well . . . 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.” George H.W. Bush on Nov. 4, 1992
Every concession speech in modern U.S. history has included a version of “the people have spoken,” an acknowledgment that democracy has done its work.
“Whichever side you’re in, the winning or the losing side, it’s traditional and important under most circumstances to recognize the majesty of the people and the Constitution,” Judge said.
Clinton has given no indication that she wouldn’t say the same. But Trump’s allegations of a “rigged election” in the last months of the campaign could mean he’d do something unprecedented.
The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly.
John McCain on Nov. 5, 2008
“Even if he accepts the legitimacy of the election, that very pointed rhetoric will stick,” Lehrman said. “He’s already put the point to his supporters that the election is rigged.”
However, it’s unclear where Trump would go from there. It seems unlikely that Republicans would be in a position to contest the result of the election “unless it’s very close and it does look like it’s voter fraud on a large scale,” according to Judge.
Step 4: Point out your campaign’s successes
“When we began, no one thought it was possible to even make this a close race. But we stood for real change, change that would make a real difference in the life of our nation and the lives of our families. And we defined that choice to America.” John Kerry on Nov. 3, 2004
This is the opportunity for the candidates to say something uplifting to their supporters – and to position themselves if they plan to run again. In the past, it has been common to point out that despite not winning the presidency, their campaign accomplished other goals, such as building party unity or raising important issues.
I've seen America in this campaign, and I like what I see. It's worth fighting for, and that's a fight I'll never stop.
Al Gore on Dec. 13, 2000
“The candidate has to articulate to supporters a sense of why they fought the fight, and that while they lost it was still an important campaign,” Zelizer said. “It’s a way of saving face for yourself and also giving some kind of good feeling to your supporters.”
Clinton would likely speak about the fight to strengthen the party to continue to build on Obama’s legacy. Trump, whose campaign splintered the Republican party, would not be able to claim that.
But candidates also often speak about how they brought issues to the table that wouldn’t have been discussed otherwise.
“I could see him talking about giving a voice to those who had no voices, and that these people are a part of America that must continue to be heard,” Judge said.