Donald Trump hates losing. And right now he looks likely to lose the election.
So how will he react if he does?
One possibility is that he won’t concede at all — after all, he’s only promised to accept the results of the election “if I win.” He’s promised he will “look at it at the time” and “keep you in suspense.” He’s pointed out that he reserves his “right to contend or file a legal challenge, in the case of a questionable result.”
Still, it’s possible that his threats are just about keeping up suspense. His running mate Mike Pence and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway have said he’ll accept the results of the election.
Trump’s past performances do not suggest a sudden outbreak of good sportsmanship is likely. He started his campaign calling Mexicans rapists and criminals. He’s repeatedly said Clinton is stealing the election. Even in victory, during the primaries, he had a tendency to put down his rivals rather than magnanimously reach out to them.
But to get a better idea of what Trump might do, it’s worth looking back at how he conceded during the primary. His string of victories means there are only two real examples to draw on: Iowa and Wisconsin.
In Iowa, Trump held it together on election night but was soon on Twitter pushing conspiracy theories and lashing out at opponents. In Wisconsin, where he lost by double digits, he didn’t speak, but a statement from his campaign lashed out at Sen. Ted Cruz, calling him a liar.
Trump’s reputation for unpredictability is overrated. He usually reliably responds to similar stimuli in similar ways — which is why Clinton could bait him so successfully during the debates. And when he loses, he doesn’t do it gracefully.
Even Trump’s “graceful” concession was followed by a rant
The one actual concession speech Trump made during the primaries was surprisingly gracious. But then he reverted immediately back to his old self.
Trump lost 12 states during the Republican primaries. But because many states held primaries on the same day, often those losses came amid even more victories. Trump really only had two nights when he was soundly, unequivocally beaten in a primary he’d contested: on February 1, when Cruz beat him in Iowa, and on April 5, when Cruz beat him in Wisconsin.
When Trump lost Iowa, he didn’t insult anyone. He congratulated Cruz. He thanked the people of Iowa and told them they were “special.” He didn’t suggest the results were rigged. He gave a boring, gracious concession that was notable mostly for not being a crazed rant.
Then, not 36 hours later, he accused Cruz of voter fraud, said he “stole” the election, and called for a do-over:
Based on the fraud committed by Senator Ted Cruz during the Iowa Caucus, either a new election should take place or Cruz results nullified.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 3, 2016
Trump was referring to two get-out-the-vote strategies by the Cruz campaign, neither of which was illegal.
The campaign and Cruz supporters suggested that Ben Carson, who appealed to many of the same voters as Cruz, would drop out after the caucuses. (Carson had left Iowa to go home to get clothes and had said he wouldn’t campaign in New Hampshire, but he hadn’t signaled that he was planning to drop out.)
The Cruz campaign also sent a mailer to Iowa households scoring the voting record of the residents and their neighbors, including labeling some mailers with “Voting violation.” The idea was based on political science research that found sending people their past voter records could get them to show up to the polls. But the whole thing was a disaster for Cruz. The voter records weren’t even accurate, the recipients were not happy, and the Iowa secretary of state stepped in to suggest Cruz had gone too far.
It’s true the Cruz campaign was clearly trying to manipulate voters. So do all political campaigns: Every election is supposedly a battle of ideas, but getting people to show up to vote for you is the whole point of the exercise. It’s understandable that Trump might consider the tactics underhanded, but they weren’t illegal, and they definitely weren’t voter fraud. Trump’s eventual reaction to losing was a massive overreaction.
Trump didn’t make any kind of public statement when he lost Wisconsin, but his campaign sent out a statement that accused Cruz of violating election laws, called him a “Trojan horse,” and referred to him by Trump’s favorite nickname, “Lyin’ Ted.”
No Trump speech, but campaign issues statement on "Lyin' Ted's" WI victory pic.twitter.com/PkXmWpgNhA— Benjy Sarlin (@BenjySarlin) April 6, 2016
Trump had two other nights when he was a loser: He lost Colorado on April 9 and Wyoming on April 17. Both states selected their delegates through a convention process rather than traditional primaries or caucuses, and Trump hadn’t been expected to win because of his weak support among party insiders. This didn’t stop him from complaining that Colorado was rigged, which it was not.
It’s worth noting that this is how Trump acted about losses that weren’t even particularly consequential. Iowa was the first state to express its primary preference, but it’s just one state, and Trump was always likely to struggle there; he could recover just fine from a loss there, as indeed he did. Losing Wisconsin by double digits was embarrassing, but Trump still had a massive lead; only the most optimistic NeverTrump Republicans thought Cruz somehow had a chance after his victory in the state.
Losing a presidential election is a lot more final. And the way Trump acted in Iowa and Wisconsin suggests he won’t take a loss well. The pressure on him to concede will be fierce — but the best-case scenario seems like a begrudging speech, followed, more likely than not, by angry tweets.
The four elements of a good concession speech
Trump benefits from the soft bigotry of low expectations. So any speech where he 1) acknowledges that he lost, 2) doesn’t say he’ll contest the results, and 3) congratulates Hillary Clinton is likely to be portrayed as a triumph of civility and statesmanship.
Usually, though, observers expect a little bit more from concession speeches. Scott Farris, a historian and political analyst who has studied losing presidential candidates, broke down the steps in a good concession speech to the Washington Post in 2012, and Paul Corcoran, a professor of politics at the University of Adelaide, did the same in a 1994 paper. They agreed on the basic elements:
- Actually concede. Acknowledge the result of the election and congratulate your opponent on his or her victory. This is a way of demonstrating that the results are legitimate. (Admitting that someone else won is much more common than admitting you lost.)
- Call for unity. Refer to the winner as “my president,” “your president,” or “everyone’s president.”
- Praise democracy. Say something like “the people have spoken.”
- Rally the troops. Reiterate your campaign’s message, explain why it was worth fighting for, and call for your supporters to stay involved. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s speech when he lost the 1984 Democratic nomination is the ultimate example: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
That’s a lot to expect from someone who is probably having the worst night of his professional life. Making it more complicated is the fact that, as two former speechwriters told NPR in 2012, prewriting a concession speech is so fraught on the campaign trail that many campaigns just don’t do it because it seems like giving up.
That means candidates can end up speaking off the cuff or giving hastily prepared remarks. Even with candidates who are far more controlled with Trump, that doesn’t always turn out well: Mitt Romney, who apparently believed he was winning in 2012, didn’t prepare a concession speech. His remarks barely checked the four boxes, and they were particularly light on national unity.
John McCain’s 2008 speech, widely considered one of the best modern concession speeches, was prewritten, perhaps because the likely result of the election was clear before voters went to the polls. The fact that Trump is lagging far behind Clinton suggests that his speechwriters, if they wanted, could follow up with another great example. They’d just have to persuade their candidate to deliver it.
Trump rarely gives in to the discipline of a teleprompter for very long, and he’s still insistent that he’s going to win — and that if he doesn’t, the election is rigged. These aren’t exactly the ideal conditions to produce a unifying election night message.