What Biden and Trump can learn from past presidential concessions

There’s no legal requirement for a concession, but they have an important symbolic function

Josh Marcus
Saturday 07 November 2020 00:44
Trump refuses to commit to peaceful transfer of power

As Joe Biden edges towards a likely victory in the presidential election, thoughts are now turning towards what a Donald Trump concession might like look—or whether there will be a concession at all.

His campaign maintains he has no plans to concede any time soon, and the president has already falsely declared himself the winner of the election as votes are still being counted. Ahead of the election, Mr Trump warned of this, declining to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.

Both camps and their supporters are preparing for what a disputed election result could look like, with the Biden campaign releasing a statement that, "The US government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House.”

Meanwhile, the president’s advisers/family members Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are reportedly being considering in case the president needs an intervention before he decides to throw in the towel.

The Transition Integrity Project, a bipartisan group of experts and politicians recently predicted there’s "a high degree of likelihood that November’s elections will be marked by a chaotic legal and political landscape. We also assess that President Trump is likely to contest the result by both legal and extra-legal means, in an attempt to hold onto power.”

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Whatever happens, both campaigns could learn from the history of concessions.

There is no legal or constitutional requirement that the loser must make a statement conceding the election. The only thing the US Constitution mandates is that the new president start their term on January 20.

That doesn’t mean concessions aren’t important though. As political theorist and historian Paul Corcoran once wrote, concessions are “an institutionalised public speech act integral to democratic life and the legitimacy of authority.” His analysis of the history of concessions also found that the most unifying speeches came after the most divisive elections, as candidates saw a need to settle the national mood.

The history of the public presidential concession dates back to 1896, when William Jennings Bryant sent William McKinley a telegram two days after the election. Its brevity almost reads like a tweet now.

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.

Overall, there have been 32 total concession speeches in the past 120 years, and they’ve evolved with technology, hopping from radio in 1928 to newsreel in 1940 to live television in 1952. They often follow a rote format: state defeat, call for unity, celebrate democracy, vow to keep fighting for ideas behind the campaign.

But there have been some variations over the years, and these outliers could help illuminate what will happen in 2020—or, at this rate, 2021.

We’ve already seen a repeat of 2016, when Hillary Clinton didn’t concede on election night itself, though counting regularly takes multiple days before an official winner is declared. The president, who has waged lawsuits across the country to challenge voting based on unfounded claims of mass fraud, has the legal right to challenge the results up through January, so we may have to wait even longer.

There have also been premature concessions. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore initially conceded to George W Bush, following networks calling the election, but later recanted amid calls for a recount in Florida. Eventually, he conceded again, and said he wished the best for the president.

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Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has warned Mr Biden not to prematurely concede under any circumstances, perhaps fearing a repeat of Florida in 2000.

Concession speeches have also yielded genuine moments of inspiring bipartisanship. John McCain’s concession speech in 2008, where he celebrated the significance of Barack Obama being elected as America’s first Black president, is regarded by some as the best concession ever in a US presidential contest.

Now, if things go entirely the other way, with the president refusing to leave, America would be entering uncharted territory, where law enforcement authorities might need to get involved. No president in modern history has ever refused to concede

As Joshua Sandman, a professor of political science at the University of New Haven, recently told The Independent, he’s not sure Mr Trump would ever cleanly agree to leave office after an election because it would destroy the president’s legacy.

“The first line of defence would be the congress, and his party pressuring him out, telling him he must resign or leave,” Mr Sandman says. “If he wants to stay in the White House, he would stay in the White House. But, again, hypothetically you don’t need that. The White House is symbolic. It’s not a seat of power, necessarily.”

He adds: “All of these are, it’s sort of a work of science fiction. It’s all hypothetical.”

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