Concession Speech History: How U.S. Presidential Candidates Have Announced Their Loss In The Past

By | November 12, 2020

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William Jennings Bryan speaking at the 1908 Democratic National Convention. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most important parts of the election cycle is the concession speech. It's not something that's legally required of a candidate, but after just about every election, the loser has called, written, or spoken to the winner in person to offer a few words of congratulations before addressing their supporters. Some have handled it with aplomb, others have bailed out on the responsibility completely, but most losing candidates have made some effort to signal to the public their commitment to the peaceful end of what can be a thorny election cycle.

The First Concession

It's entirely possible that our Founding Fathers were making concessions as early as the Adams administration, but the tradition of extending a public olive branch to the presidential victor goes back to at least 1896, when Democrat William Jennings Bryan lost the election to Republican William McKinley and conceded via telegram two days after the vote. He wrote:

Senator [James K.] 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.

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Richard Nixon with his wife Pat at the Republican National Convention in Chicago. (U.S. National Archives)

The Concession Speech Formula

There's no one way to concede following an election, but experts have noted a few crucial components of modern concessions. First, a candidate admits their failure but never actually says the words "lost," "lose," or "defeat," instead focusing on the victory of their opponent. After getting that out of the way, the candidate calls for unity across the aisle. After his defeat in the 1960 election, Richard Nixon said:

I have great faith that our people, Republicans, Democrats alike, will unite behind our next president.

Once that's over with, a candidate usually tops the whole thing off by renewing their commitment to continue fighting for their party, the country, and all of the fine people who supported them along the way. If an election is close, the speech tends to be more unifying, but if a candidate loses in a landslide, they tend to get rowdier to pump up morale.