Even though Joe Biden has secured enough votes to become president-elect of the United States, President Donald Trump has given every indication that he won’t accept the result as fair. Trump also has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
Both moves would be historical firsts if Trump refuses to concede even after all legal challenges are resolved. U.S. history has seen a handful of bitterly contested elections, most recently in 2000, when Democrat Al Gore called Republican George W. Bush to concede in the early hours after election night—only to call back back and retract his concession when the race unexpectedly tightened up. While their first conversation was congenial, the second was tense, with Gore famously telling Bush, “You don’t have to get snippy about this.”
No presidential candidate has ever refused to concede defeat once all the votes were counted and legal challenges resolved.
For the country’s first hundred years or so, conceding a race wasn’t part of the process at all. Here’s how the loser’s concession went from nonexistent to an essential custom that all candidates have observed—albeit some less graciously than others.
How concessions became an election tradition
The peaceful transfer of power has been a norm since 1800, when the country’s second president John Adams became the first to lose his reelection bid and quietly left Washington, D.C., on an early morning stagecoach to avoid attending his successor Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration.
Some early presidential candidates did send congratulatory letters to their opponents, says John R. Vile, dean of political science at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, who has written about the history of concession speeches. But formal concessions didn’t become an election custom until 1896, when Republican William McKinley defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan.
In his account of the campaign in a later memoir, Bryan wrote that he began to resign himself to the loss by 11 p.m. on election night—a resignation that grew in the subsequent days as states completed counting ballots. On Thursday evening, Bryan learned that his loss was certain and immediately sent a telegram to McKinley, offering his congratulations and stating: “We have submitted the issue to the American people and their will is law.”
With that, a custom was born—much to Bryan’s own bewilderment as he considered it to be simply the courteous thing to do. “This exchange of messages was much commented upon at the time, though why it should be considered extraordinary I do not know,” Bryan wrote. “We were not fighting each other, but stood as the representatives of different political ideas, between which the people were to choose.”
Ever since, losing candidates have conceded to their opponents—even sitting presidents. In 1912, for example, Republican President William Howard Taft conceded to Democrat Woodrow Wilson at 11 p.m. on election night, while in 1932 Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover telegraphed his congratulations to Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt the day after the New York governor unseated him, and Hoover promised to dedicate himself “to every possible helpful effort.” (In the wake of the election, however, Hoover became a vocal critic of FDR’s policies.)
In 1960, Republican Vice President Nixon sealed his own loss to Democrat John F. Kennedy when, in his role as president of the Senate, he counted and confirmed the electoral votes. Even though Hawaii had sent two sets of votes after its results had been briefly contested, Nixon asked for, and received, unanimous consent to count the state for his opponent since they would not have changed the results of the election. “I don’t think we could have a more eloquent example of the stability of our constitutional system and the proud tradition of the American people of developing, respecting, and honoring institutions,” even when one loses, Vile says.
But losing candidates they haven’t always been gracious—or timely. In 1916, it took Republican Charles Evans Hughes two weeks to congratulate incumbent Democratic president Woodrow Wilson after a race so close it had taken two days to count the votes—which had initially been erroneously called in Hughes’ favor. (Why counting votes on Election Day has always been complicated.)
In 1944, Republican Thomas Dewey conceded his defeat to the incumbent president, FDR, on the radio the morning after Election Day—but became the only candidate since Bryan who did not call his opponent or send a telegram. As historian Scott Farris writes, Roosevelt was so irritated by the snub that he later sent Dewey a telegram that read, “I thank you for your statement, which I heard over the air a few minutes ago.”
Another Republican challenger, Barry Goldwater, also briefly held off on admitting his defeat to Democrat Lyndon Johnson until the day after the 1964 election—even though results were clear the night before and Americans had widely expected Goldwater to concede. In his note to Johnson, Goldwater promised his help in “achieving a growing and better America”—but also reminded his rival that the Republican Party would remain “the party of opposition when opposition is called for.”
History’s most contentious presidential races have also ended in admissions of defeat—even before concessions became a norm. In 1860, Democrat Stephen Douglas understood that the election of anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln would rankle Southerners—and possibly inspire rebellion. Rather than stoke those sentiments, he embarked on a tour of southern states to call for unity. “Mr. Lincoln is the next President,” he told his supporters. “We must try to save the Union. I will go South.” Ultimately, however, 11 states seceded from the Union before Lincoln’s inauguration, setting the stage for the Civil War.
In 1876, Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote but lost to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in one of the most disputed U.S. elections of all time. Amid allegations of voter fraud, a bipartisan commission resolved the election by awarding it to Hayes in return for a promise that federal troops would leave the South, effectively ending Reconstruction, the turbulent 12-year effort following the Civil War to reintegrate into the Republic the former Confederacy and protect the rights of freed Blacks.
In a speech delivered in June 1877, Tilden decried his loss as a result of corruption and fraud, but also told supporters that they should be of good cheer. “The Republic will live. The institutions of our fathers are not to expire in shame. The sovereignty of the people shall be rescued from this peril and be re-established.”
Even the protracted 2000 election—which dragged into 36 days of counting and recounting ballots, disputing “hanging chads,” and litigating challenges all the way to the Supreme Court—ultimately ended on a conciliatory note.
The Supreme Court halted the Florida recount on December 12, effectively delivering the win to Bush, who was 537 votes ahead. Gore delivered a televised concession speech from his office in the White House, declaring that “partisan rancor must now be put aside.”
What happens if a president doesn’t concede
Since it is not a formal part of the election process, there are no legal consequences if a presidential candidate such as Trump refuses to concede. As Gore learned, a concession isn’t a binding contract. And declining to concede doesn’t necessarily mean that an election will remain perpetually up in the air. If a candidate contests the results, there is a formal process with set deadlines that culminates in a certification of the official results from Congress. In 2020, states must resolve any disputes by December 8 so that the Electoral College can meet and cast their votes at places designated by their state’s legislature on December 14. (Find out what happens if an election is contested.)
There is a remote possibility that the losing candidate could decline to accept that certification—which would result in a constitutional crisis—or that a sitting president could refuse to leave the White House. The Biden campaign has already addressed the latter, issuing a statement that “the United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House.”
But Vile argues that it matters for presidential candidates to concede even if it doesn’t have legal consequences, because words matter. Adherence to established electoral norms has helped shore up U.S. democracy even in the midst of its most chaotic and divisive elections.
“When it comes down to it, it’s not the Army or the Navy that keeps the United States together,” Vile says. “It’s the notion that we are bound together by certain great principles and that our similarities are more binding than our differences are.”
This story was originally published on November 6, 2020. It has been updated to reflect the results of the U.S. presidential election.