Analysis of the Concession Speeches

This is a playlist of all the speeches in chronological order!

Adlai Stevenson’s is considered the standard by which all other concessions are measured, though it was actually Al Smith who delivered the first concession speech over the radio and Jennings Bryan was the first to message the victor and wish him congratulations.

I could not find Al Smith’s, Hoover’s, Landon’s or Dewey’s speeches nor could I find Adlai’s from 1956. I was however, able to find Wilkie’s which is great because he’s my fave republican candidate. His speech is the shortest by far and seems to include outtakes for some planned filmed soundbites. There’s really nothing to say about it, though it’s interesting to hear.

Honestly, these are all pretty by the books so there’s not a whole lot to say about them, compared to the inaugurals, farewells and convention speeches to come…

1952

I liked Adlai’s famous quote about Lincoln stubbing his toe. Everything else about this speech has been copied so much that you’ve basically heard it before without realizing it if you’ve paid attention to at least one election.

1960

We don’t seem to have Nixon’s full speech, unfortunately. Trying to find it is hard because the 1962 concession in the CA Governor’s race is far more famous. That’s where he famously said “you wont have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore!” and briefly considered retiring from public life.

1964

There is no video for Goldwater’s concession, which was unusual in that it was delivered the next morning and in the style of a press conference. It’s remembered for its defiance in the face of one of the biggest landslide defeats in history. I won’t comment on it without video or audio. You can read the whole thing here.

1968

I thought Humphrey was gonna be brief for once, but after a four minute speech he gets back to the mic and goes on again, almost as long, just restating himself. He’s the most long-winded public servant I know of.

1972

McGovern is the only one to “requote” Adlai Stevenson’s quote by Lincoln. He, along with Nixon from 1960, seems to have taken the loss the best. Humphrey before him (and quite a few others after) looked crestfallen and almost like they were gonna start crying. By contrast, George seems in good spirits here, which just shows how well he was able to hold it together in difficult situations, because from all I’ve read he was devastated by the defeat. I love McGovern’s quote by Yates—he’s used it before, and I almost think of it as his own rhetorical signature.

Considering how humiliatingly large the margin of loss was, I think he handled this better than almost any person could have. Also noteworthy with this concession in particular, is McGovern goes to great lengths to emphasize the importance of ending the war as soon as possible, and reassures his supporters by saying if they moved peace just one day closer, it was all worth it. He also offers a guidance for what it means to be “the loyal opposition” as he calls it. I believe this sets him apart from his peers and makes this speech far more meaningful and memorable. It’s a perfect capstone to what his campaign was about, not just “I lost, the other guy won, democracy has done its job, don’t be too sad, goodbye.” It just shows how much he genuinely cares about these issues.

1976

Ford’s speech is memorably poor. He had HIS WIFE read it for him. I can think of nothing more sad than that. This was done supposedly because his voice was hoarse. But I think he should have at least tried, or given it to his VP, not his wife. It’s a very brief and very generic address, similar to Ford’s own Presidency. His wife even had to resort to her own version of Jeb’s “Please Clap” and is rewarded with a polite but unenthusiastic round of applause.

1980

Carter does something great which no other concession speech has yet done—he gives a special shoutout to his running mate. Its interesting how fired up the crowd is for him here in start contrast to his DNC speeches and inauguration where they looked bored to tears. Unlike almost every other Jimmy Carter speech I’ve yet to watch, this one ends right where it should rather than drag on and lose all focus.

1984

Mondale looks like a broken man honestly. He’s unique thus far for thanking his family and VP selection. Like McGovern, who also only won a single state, he calls out that state by name. Unfortunately, this video cuts out just as he was promising to deliver a special message to his youngest supporters. I was actually really curious what he might say. Bizarrely, I tried to find a full video of the speech and was completely unable to locate one. Even on CSPAN, they only had his concession for a 2002 Senate seat rate. What on earth is up with that? This is the only of the major two candidate concession speeches which I could not find anywhere in full. Even on the NYT website, the transcript of the debate ends there. I did finally manage to find a full transcript and it’s a shame there’s no video because it’s legitimately touching. I’m not the biggest Mondale fan by any means but this might be the best concession speech along with McGovern.

1988

Dukakis seems particularly robotic in his speech as opposed to those who came before, who seemed to really become human in their concessions even if I did not find them personally charming before. When he talks about his running mate and delivers the line “we have formed a friendship that will last…as long as…we will be on this planet” it feels particularly clunky. He also noticeably pauses a good deal to read his speech. “we had some not so good days….and we…climbed heartbreak hill and overcame it…” is another awkwardly written, awkwardly delivered line.

I think this might be the worst of them all. At least Ford’s was mercifully short and to the point, and when he did actually speak with his raspy voice you could feel the pain and humanity in him. Dukakis just drones on and on and in such a forced, phony manner that it’s painful to listen to and it goes on for 12 long minutes. That may not sound too bad, but consider that most of these concession speeches are 5-8 minutes.

1992

Bush’s speech sees the return of those awful air horn buzzers I recall from a few Republican conventions in the 80s. He sounds somewhat tired and out of breath, but I don’t hold that against him. I think, especially in a concession speech (and especially coming after Dukakis) such a quality is humanizing. Bush also gives a shoutout to his running mate, Dan Quayle. I also found the “I’m gonna get busy in the grandchild business” to be a charming line.

1996

Dole gets maybe the single most passionate response from the crowd for a losing candidate I’ve seen. It takes them two and a half minutes to stop screaming and applauding. I thought his opening line about having nothing to do the next day was humorous, appropriately self-deprecating and lightens the mood. There is an obnoxious blowhard in the audience who keeps yelling obscenities and insults at Clinton despite Dole trying to speak. I love Dole’s line “the president was my opponent not my enemy.” And he also continues the tradition of thanking his running mate at-length. I also love his line to a supporter in the audience who keeps shouting–”you’re not gonna get that tax cut if you don’t be quiet!”

I don’t mean this to imply Dole didn’t want to be President or his heart wasn’t in it, but I detect relief in his voice. He seems to be the most relaxed and full of levity of all these failed presidential seekers. I think, while he wanted badly to be President (he was running since 1980) by this point he was older, tired and perhaps somewhat dreading the idea of actually carrying out the job, but that’s just my speculation. One other thing I really like is how Dole gives a brief retrospective on how his career in politics started. This is a new addition to the concession speech outline but I think it’s very appropriate. I’ve said this a few times already but I will say it again here—Bob Dole is far and away my favorite post-Reagan Era Republican besides Ron Paul. I think he was the last true fiscal or paleo-conservative to ever run for president under the GOP banner, or at least the last to be nominated. (Ron Paul was, obviously a libertarian.) While I’d obviously prefer a leftist, I think Dole would have been a fine President.

2000

Gore’s concession speech is very unique due to the circumstances of the election. It was not delivered the night of the election to adoring fans and supporters as would be the norm. Instead it came months later after many recounts, controversy and a Supreme Court decision. This makes it perhaps the most important and certainly the most contentious concession in US history. However, I think the speech suffers for it. Rather than hear the exhaustion, throat-damage and tempered ambition which makes many of these speeches so human, the shock of the campaign had long since worn off. So this is instead a far more robotic and meticulous address than Dole’s, Mondale’s or McGovern’s which felt very personal and touching. This kind of emphasizes the big criticism with Gore—that he was robotic and impersonal. I also detect quite a bit of resentment and perhaps even contempt in Gore towards his opponent and the controversial decision which won him the presidency. It’s well-earned but still harms the speech.

I think Gore’s speech is the perfect example of how important personal touches, improv and humanizing moments are to political addresses. Especially in concession speeches, which are all so ridiculously similar in their conventions that literally the only things that make them stand out are those personal touches each candidate may (or may not in this case) bring to them. This speech almost feels like an educational lecture on how the political process works. The quoting of America the beautiful at the end is particularly cringe-worthy.

2004

Kerry is like Dukakis with a raspier voice here. Judging by the tone of his voice in the beginning, I think even he was shocked and pissed he’d managed to lose to Bush of all people. His line about wanting to wrap all of us up in his arms was…maybe not the best way to express that sentiment, but I could feel the sincerity in it. I liked his off the cuff response to a spectator yelling that he had his back: “thank you, and I’ll still have yours’!” I loved the shout out to William Field as well–I was not aware of his story. Unfortunately this speech goes on far longer than it has any right to and begins to drone. I still maintain that Dukakis’ concession is the worst yet, but it’s interesting how both Gore and Kerry independently inherited something from that stinker that made it so bad—the robotic delivery and ridiculous length, respectively. There’s only so much you can say in a concession speech; just keep it short and sweet.

2008

McCain’s concession speech is considered the best of them all, from what I’d always heard. I really love the line where he congratulates Obama’s ability to inspire people who did not believe they had any representation or ability to choose a president before. I believe that is a sincerely held opinion of McCain’s and I’d certainly hope many other Republicans feel that way as well. Unfortunately with how obstructionism, gerrymandering, attacking LGBT rights and voter suppression, that certainly doesn’t seem to be the case. It was a great move on McCain’s part to acknowledge the history of racism in America and the significance of Obama’s accomplishment to be the first black man elected President. He even goes as far as talk respectfully about Obama’s grandmother. Contrast this proud moment to Trump’s birtherism that would soon follow and then weep at how far the Republican Party has fallen.

This is the most a concession speech has ever focused on the opposing, victorious candidate. This is also the first time I’ve ever heard a candidate accept full responsibility for the loss “the fault is mine, not yours’.” I liked that too. While nobody would blame him for leaving her out, McCain continues the tradition since Carter of praising his VP and their family. I’m not sure how I feel about him not acknowledging that she was the first woman on a national ticket from the GOP. It would have been good to I think, but with all his focus on Obama it might have come off as overkill. Besides, Mondale did not focus on that either in his own concession speech. Now that I’ve seen it, I can say McCain’s speech has well-earned its reputation.

2012

Romney infamously claimed to have “written only one” speech on election night, and admitted this was the truth and not just a brag after the fact. It does say a lot about how boiler-plate the concession speeches are that he was able to improvise one the night of. Still, you can improvise a great moment or two but not an entire great speech. And his suffers greatly from how by-the-numbers it is, especially coming after McCain’s inspired oration from the previous election. This is easily one of the bottom-tier speeches in this category.

2016

Hillary’s the only one of these I saw as it happened. I was up that entire night just taking in the shock of Trump’s stunning victory with the talking heads on youtube, the commentators on reddit and my friends on facebook. Like Romney, it’s very very likely she did not actually write a concession speech that night. If she did, she lacked the composure or the character to give it the night of. Instead, she sent Podesta to shoo away her most loyal supporters who’d waited in the dark and cold until 2 AM to hear her speak. I thought that was incredibly poor form for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was how much she and the media were attacking Trump for the possibility that he might not concede. Moreover, I thought it revealed a lack of respect for her supporters as PEOPLE who’d surrendered their passion, time, money and more to see her get elected. Even if she had no concession speech written (itself another example of her unbelievable hubris considering how close the election was) she could have said some unofficial words to the devoted before offering a more formal address the next morning. We’ve already seen how easy concessions are to make up on the fly, and speaking of Romney I think the fact that the last two failed candidates didn’t even bother to write concessions in advance is a horrible trend in politics. I see it as yet another example of how nasty and personal it’s becoming.

In any case, Hillary’s speech was the last thing I saw that fateful day before I turned off my computer, went to class and crashed that afternoon. I remember feeling extreme schadenfreude that such an abysmal person received their comeuppance in front of the whole country as well as resentment that she’d doomed us to Trump and a GOP landslide. That said, one thing I remember admiring was in the way she wore a purple shirt and lapels (Bill matching her with a purple tie) to emphasize the message of unity in the speech. One thing I will give Hillary is I liked how she took advantage of the freedom of women’s fashion in the election. She came to the debates wearing red, white and blue and delivered her concession in the colors of both parties mixed. One wonders what she would have worn had she been delivering a victory speech.

When Hillary says she hopes Donald Trump will be a successful president, you know that’s very much false considering her arm-chair quarterbacking the last couple of months. Trump’s administration has been uniquely terrible, but in my limited experience this backseat driving from a failed candidate, especially one who is not serving in public office at any level any longer, is completely unprecedented in American politics. Whether it’s warranted or not considering Trump’s unique weaknesses in office, I think it’s a precedent we will soon regret breaking, and in any case it makes this line rub me the wrong way.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen a losing candidate actually APOLOGIZE for their failure. Normally a line like that would humanize a candidate to me, but in this case I just couldn’t help but think “yeah, you’d better be sorry—this is all your fault!” I don’t believe her for a moment when she claims that the campaign was “not about one person, but our country.” Her lines about freedom of worship and the rule of law was sort of a backhanded (but deserved) dig at Trump whose campaign was largely built on Muslim and minority bashing. The calls for unity including specific shout outs to minority groups (such as LGBT) is unprecedented in one of these speeches. I have absolutely no idea what on earth Hillary was referring to with that “secret private facebooks” line. Was it a reference to fake news, 4chan…other websites she’s so out of touch she doesn’t know the name of? Who knows. It’s yet another example of her being completely out of touch, like your grandma trying to use internet lingo or slang. It reminds me of her horrible “Pokemon Go…to the polls” line.

I’m not sure how I feel about the special shout out to women at the end and referring to herself as “your champion.” I hated how Hillary constantly went out of her way to emphasize her femininity and having a woman president above the issues. I get being proud of your womanhood—I am too—and wanting to show that women can lead at the highest office. However I think she ended up missing the point that a President is supposed to lead EVERYBODY and appeal to the needs of ALL the voters. Hillary lost sight of that by trying to force this historic “first woman” thing. She also alienated people by pushing that feminist president angle–you didn’t see Obama going around all the time talking about his own race or historicity. Final observation—when Hillary name-drops her campaign slogan “stronger together” towards the end, she does it with a tone and cadence in her voice that makes me feel like even she thought it was fake and slightly cringe inducing. If eye-rolls could be expressed in a vocalization, this was a verbal eye-roll.

Overall, this actually wasn’t a bad concession speech on its own written merits. It’s the fact that it wasn’t delivered until the next day, after shooing away her most devoted supporters and harping on how Trump wouldn’t concede, that made it distasteful to me. It’s the fact that she ran a horrible campaign and doomed us to Trump for the sake of her own ego and breaking the glass ceiling—and this was emphasized one last time in her speech. In short, it wasn’t the speech so much that was the problem, it was the person delivering it.

Summary

In conclusion, the concession speeches truly do conform to the outline established by Adlai Stevenson in 1952. This makes them more tedious to listen to, especially all at once, but easier to compare with each other because the only differences are each candidate’s unique improv or imperfections. I’d say McCain, Dole, McGovern, Mondale and possibly Carter were actually my favorite—the last two are particularly surprising since I was not a fan of either man’s oratory skills before. The only speeches that strike me as particularly poor are Dukakis, Ford, Gore and Kerry, and this is mostly due to unnecessary length, robotic delivery or in Ford’s case, having someone else reading it for you. Hillary, Bush, Humphrey and Nixon are the middle of the road; there’s nothing particularly bad but they get lost among the crowd.

I believe Gore, McCain and Hillary had the steepest challenges in delivering their respective speeches. Hillary because the race was uniquely divisive and the country very scared or angry over the whole thing. (Also being the first woman or minority to lose probably presents a challenge of how much to emphasize or ignore that.) Gore’s challenge was the unique circumstances of the election and the flared tempers that occurred as a result. McCain had to honor his supporters and himself while still acknowledging the historicity of the night and Obama’s achievement. Even though I think Gore and Hillary came up short on oration and/or personal metrics in their speeches, I think all three succeeded in rhetoric and achieved what they needed to do.

Apparently VPs sometimes give their own concession speeches along with the head of the ticket. I tried to find some but couldn’t except Bentsen and Kaine. I’ll post some brief thoughts on them too.

Kaine’s speech: Like in his debate performance, I think his emphasis on Hillary as a “history maker” is misguided and really rubs me the wrong way. It’s one of many things I did not like about that ticket, the over-emphasis on how “historic” it would be to have a first woman president. “I’m proud of Hillary” has to go down in history as the worst chorus to a speech of all time, and it feels like it was just to assuage her ego rather than reassure the people or make the speech more effective. You could make a drinking game (and die) for every time Kaine says the name Hillary. It’s perfectly indicative of how the campaign was all about her and nothing about the voters or what they want. With all the emphasis on Hillary herself and the historicity of a woman president, it just proves once and for all the Democratic bigwigs that year simply did NOT understand the pain real Americans are in, or what this race was truly all about. It’s all just a pageant to them, and that justly angered many people who desperately needed a champion and saw him sidelined in the name of Hillary’s massive narcissistic ego.

Bentsen’s speech: Compare Kaine and Bentsen here. The latter doesn’t even mention his running mate’s name until halfway thru the speech. Once he does, he focuses on the hard work they did in the campaign as well as the values they stood for in it. This as opposed to talking about the top of the ticket alone and how “historic” it would have been. Then he goes right back to addressing the voters themselves, this time in his home state of Texas. It’s clear Bentsen is proud of his running mate, his country and especially his state and the people in it. This is a pretty typical speech but it’s delivered with a lot of heart. The more I see from ’88 the more I end up agreeing that the ticket ought to have been flipped—Bentsen should have been the Presidential nominee out of the two.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Cassie,
    You are great at Political Analysis. I would never have thought to compare concession speeches. I learn stuff every time you post on this site. Will check out the Victory speeches next. Keep it up and one day you will be known as a go to political analysis. I hope I live long enough to se you as a guest on news programs to analyse speeches and election results.

    Like

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