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.