The Washington Post

The death of the political concession call is upon us

It's the political equivalent of shaking hands at the end of the big game. But the concession call may be falling out of vogue more and more. Just ask D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser, who just won the Democratic nomination for mayor.


D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Briefing reporters Wednesday, Bowser said she still had not spoken with Mayor Vincent C. Gray, whom she defeated in Tuesday's primary. It's not the first time a runner-up has declined to make the congratulatory call to the winning candidate that has long been customary. You don't have to reach back far into history to find at least a pair of other high-profile candidates who refused to pick up the phone.

After losing to now-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) after a bruising 2013 campaign, Republican Ken Cuccinelli never made the call. Two weeks after the election, Cuccinelli still appeared to harbor negative feelings. He explained to The Washington Post that it was McAuliffe's conduct during the campaign that prompted him to buck tradition. The Republican pointed to claims that he would outlaw common forms of birth control which he said were false.

Hard feelings could also be felt a mile away in the 2012 Republican presidential primary. After wins in the early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida, eventual nominee Mitt Romney never heard from former speaker Newt Gingrich.

"The other candidates all called," Romney told NBC's "Today" at the time. "I guess Speaker Gingrich doesn’t have our phone number."

Ouch. Romney said he called to congratulate Gingrich after he won South Carolina. Ouch x 2. Gingrich's explanation for his silence? Romney didn't deserve a call.

A refusal to make nice is more notable after a primary than it is following a general election. The day after winning the party's nod, candidates need to unite their party behind them. Any signs of lingering rifts could threaten to undercut their standing heading into the general election and make them look weak.

It's not like the conversations that do happen mean all that much. As Mark Leibovich wrote in the New York Times in 2010, they are often superficial exchanges. But not going though the motions -- especially in the age of Twitter and other social media that have applied an extra layer of scrutiny on campaigns -- instantly threatens to open a candidate up to charges of sour grapes.

The concession call isn't going away overnight. None of the above examples would be notable unless the obligatory conversations still happened in the vast majority of cases.

But the next time a candidate loses a high stakes campaign, don't think they will automatically pick up the phone.

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Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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