What history has shown us about contested elections and peaceful transitions of power.
Just the FAQs, USA TODAY
When a candidate loses a U.S. presidential election, tradition holds the candidate promptly and publicly acknowledges defeat in a concession speech to help with the peaceful transition of power.
The speeches, while difficult for a candidate, are typically gracious celebrations of American democracy. The Chicago Tribune and Arizona Republic opinion columns have held up John McCain’s concession to Barack Obama in 2008 as an example of the tradition done right.
“The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly,” McCain said at the time. “A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Sen. Barack Obama to congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love.”
A concession speech isn’t part of U.S. law or the Constitution — it’s a time-honored voluntary gesture, author and liberal commentator Van Jones said in an October 2020 Ted Talk.
He is among those who have speculated about the details of what could happen if Trump — who has previously declined to commit on a peaceful transfer of power and is now facing a narrow path to reelection — refused to concede if he lost the 2020 presidential election.
Without a concession, usually hidden parts of the election process — such as the inner-workings of the Electoral College — could be ripped open and used to decide the election in an unprecedented way. It would mean a race could be headed for a result decided by the courts or by obscure parts of the law.
But a concession signals to voters that none of that will occur: Supporters should accept the results, which will not be further challenged by the losing candidate.
Can a race be called without a concession?
While many Americans are used to presidential election results and public concessions from the losing candidate occurring at roughly the same time, that doesn’t have to be the case.
“As a legal matter, a candidate unwilling to concede can contest the election into January,” according to a report by the Transition Integrity Project — a recent effort by researchers to study scenarios that would put the integrity of the 2020 election at risk.
The mechanisms for publicly projecting a presidential winner in the media, officially counting the votes and formally electing a president are separate from a candidate conceding the race.
Has a presidential candidate ever refused to concede?
Not in modern history, although a nearly instant public speech hasn’t always been the way candidates concede, according to The Hill. And if you go back in history, you can find examples where norms of the time around concessions were violated, including by Thomas Jefferson.
The modern understanding of a public concession can be traced to 1896, when William Jennings Bryan sent opponent William McKinley a cordial telegram, NPR reports.
Since then, candidates have forged a tradition of publicly acknowledging defeat and celebrating democracy in radio addresses, a recorded news reel or on live television.
Can a candidate take back a concession?
Yes — and it’s happened before in a presidential race.
In the historically tight 2000 election, Vice President Al Gore conceded to George W. Bush, only to retract the concession when the race tightened.
“He called an hour ago to concede. He just called us back to retract that concession,″ Karen Hughes, communications director for Bush, said at the time, according to the Associated Press. “It’s unbelievable.”
That’s possible because concessions are an informal part U.S. elections, according to Ryan Neville-Shepard, a University of Arkansas professor who specializes in political communication.
“Electoral concessions are not in any way binding; to the contrary, they arise out of, and are a nod to, a candidate’s faith in other electoral norms,” Neville-Shepard, wrote in a Washington Post column in 2018.