concession speech

concession speech

A “concession speech” is the speech a candidate delivers after the vote results are clear, when they publicly acknowledge that they’ve been defeated in an election. These speeches are typically delivered in front of supporters, and when they’re at their best are well-choreographed political events.

Much has been written about the importance of a good concession speech. As noted in Newsweek: “One of the most sacred traditions in American politics is the loser of presidential elections conceding victory to the winner. The peaceful transition of power is one of the pillars on which the country’s democracy is built…”

In a commentary from a 2018 article in San Diego Union-Tribune, the author posits that “concession speeches are an important and necessary ritual.”

Additionally, a 2016 USA Today article points out: “How a candidate drops out can be as important as how he/she announces. A good model is Hillary Clinton, who, in conceding the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama in 2008, said that ‘although we weren’t able to shatter the highest, hardest glass ceiling this time … it’s got about 18 million cracks in it!’”

Political scientists and speechwriters study concession speeches. In a 2012 interview with NPR, former Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson claimed that good concession speeches show “unity, gracefulness and also, frankly, a kind of fundamental humility,” using Al Gore’s 2000 concession speech as an example of one exhibiting all of those qualities.

A Time Magazine article touches upon the history of the concession speech, and traces the first “congratulatory telegram” to the election of 1896, when William Jennings Bryan conceded to William McKinley. At noted in the article: “Al Smith gave the first radio-broadcast concession speech in 1928 and Adlai Stevenson first did so on television in 1952.”

The article goes on to point out the “formulaic” nature of concession speeches, adding “The basics of that formula are such: the speaker says that he or she has congratulated the winner—usually not that he or she has lost; the word ‘concede’ is rarely heard—to the opponent; the speaker calls for unity; the speaker summons supporters to both accept the result and to continue to fight for their cause in the future.”

While it’s clear that there is a certain formula to concession speeches, historians are quick to point to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 speech as veering from that formula, breaking from tradition by saying a word no other presidential loser has ever said: “sorry.”

While there is much debate about who delivered the best presidential concession speeches of all time, a 2016 Business Insider article put together a list of the Top 10.

read my lips

read my lips

“Read my lips” ia a phrase used by George H.W. Bush in his speech for the 1988 Republican nomination for president. The full quote is “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

The line is credited with both helping him both win the presidency in 1988 and lose his bid for reelection in 1992.

The phrase became the main soundbite of Bush’s campaign in 1988, and it electrified the GOP base. His assertive promise to not raise taxes became what the American people expected from him. When he was forced to raise taxes in 1990, that promise was broken, and he was attacked from both sides of the aisle.

Time ranks it as the 3rd most unfortunate one-liner ever given in politics (behind Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon’s famous denials).

talking points

“Talking points” are a clear and concise list of ideas making up a politician’s main arguments in a stump speech. They’re typically used as a guide and not read word-for-word.

William Safire noted that he first heard the phrase as a White House speechwriter when President Nixon would often say, “Never mind preparing formal remarks for this bunch, just give me a page of talking points.”


“Bunk” is empty or nonsense talk.

In 1820, Rep. Felix Walker from Ashville, North Carolina justified his long-winded and somewhat irrelevant remarks about the Missouri Compromise by arguing that his constituents had elected him “to make a speech for Buncombe.” One member said that his pointless speech “was buncombe” and soon “buncombe” became synonymous with vacuous speech.

As the new meaning of buncombe grew in use, it was eventually shortened to the now familiar word “bunk.”


A “stemwinder” is a rousing political speech that galvanizes a crowd to take action.

The Word Detective notes the term is “one of those grand old words that have traveled so far from their origins that nearly all traces of their beginnings have faded from popular culture.”

Slate: “The term dates back to the middle of the 19th century, when the stem-winding watch came into vogue. The newfangled timepiece was a vast improvement over its predecessor, the key-wound watch, because the mechanism for setting it was a stem actually attached to the watch, rather than a key that was easily and frequently misplaced. This technological advance was so widely appreciated that, by the end of the 1800s, the term stemwinder had taken on the figurative meaning of ‘excellent’ or ‘outstanding,’ or, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, ‘a person or thing that is first rate. …'”

Checkers speech

The Checkers speech was a nationally-televised address made by Sen. Richard Nixon (R-CA) on September 23, 1952 as he was fighting to retain his spot on the national Republican ticket as the vice presidential nominee.

Nixon had been accused of improprieties relating to a fund established by his supporters to reimburse him for his political expenses. In an attempt to stem the controversy over the fund, Nixon spoke to about about 60 million Americans about his humble upbringing which led to an outpouring of public support for him. He was retained on the ticket by Dwight D. Eisenhower who won the election in November 1952.

During the speech, Nixon said that regardless of what anyone said, he intended to keep one gift: a black-and-white dog which was named Checkers by the Nixon children, thus giving the address its popular name.

The speech was an early example of a politician using television to appeal directly to the electorate, but has since sometimes been mocked or denigrated. “Checkers speech” has come more generally to mean any emotional speech by a politician.