There was a lot of talk regarding the significance of concession speeches following the second presidential debate, in which Donald Trump declined to say if he'd concede to Hillary Clinton were he to lose. His opponent immediately condemned his position, saying, “Let’s be clear about what he is saying and what that means. He is denigrating — he is talking down our democracy. And I am appalled that someone who is the nominee of one of our two major parties would take that position.” It was one of the most-talked debate about moments in the following news cycle.
This begs the question: Why do candidates concede to their opponents in the United States, and is it necessary? After all, there is no official mandate requiring election losers to formally concede. On its face, giving a concession speech seems to be something done out of politeness rather than need. Yet the concern Trump's possible refusal to accept the election's results leads one to believe that there is something more to this tradition.
In academic circles, the worry stemmed from the commonality of such scenarios in dictatorships, authoritarian regimes, and countries in which coups are the norm. This explains why the phrase "peaceful transfer of power" was used by Clinton, her campaign staff, reporters, and television pundits so often in the days following Trump's vague answer.
According to Almost President author Scott Farris, concession speeches are primarily geared toward unifying the country after divisive elections more than anything else. After congratulating the victor, the loser encourages his or her supporters to accept their new president, and wishes the winner luck in leading America to a better future. With Trump's frequent talk of a "rigged" election already being a potential trigger to his most ardent supporters, a refusal to acknowledge his possible loss on Election Day could fuel anger among disappointed voters. In October we saw a troubling example of what his rhetoric might be encouraging, when one Trump supporter reportedly implied that he'd assassinate Clinton if she wins the race.
Trump's campaign has provided no signs of reassurance for those worried about what could happen in the face of a loss. Trump's running mate, Mike Pence, and his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, have both stated that their candidate would accept a "clear" or "fair" result. Trump was more blunt about the matter during a rally in Ohio, where he pledged to accept the election results "if I win."
Ultimately a concession makes no difference to the results of a United States election. In Clinton's case, a Trump refusal would only succeed in making her reception as the country's leader more challenging, as well as perhaps an increase in security measures to ensure her safety.
The concession is how a losing candidate proves to the public that their main priority has always been the good of the country. If Trump chooses to discredit the validity of a Clinton victory, he may end up proving right all those who criticize him for only thinking about himself.