Presidential campaigns are essentially dramas, and for the past century, the moment of closure has come in the form of one simple act: the public concession.
There is no legal or constitutional requirement that the loser of a U.S. presidential election must concede. It began as a simple courtesy, with a telegram that William Jennings Bryan sent to his opponent, William McKinley, two days after the election of 1896.
Lincoln, Neb., November 5.
Hon. Wm. McKinley, Canton, Ohio: Senator Jones has just informed me that the returns indicate your election, and I hasten to extend my congratulations. We have submitted the issue to the American people and their will is law.
Those two sentences are considered to be the first public concession in U.S. presidential politics. The tradition has continued — in some form or another — in every election since.
Al Smith gave the first radio concession in 1928, after losing to Herbert Hoover. In 1940, moviegoers watched Wendell Willkie concede to Franklin D. Roosevelt in a newsreel. After losing to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, Adlai Stevenson gave his concession on live television.
Over the past 120 years, there have been 32 concession speeches.
And there's a template, a roadmap that candidates follow for the speech they hoped they'd never have to give, says Paul Corcoran, a professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia and a political theorist who studies U.S. presidential campaigns.