As Trump suggests, Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum had ostensibly ended his campaign on election night with a concession speech, announcing he had called his opponent Republican Ron DeSantis to congratulate him on becoming “the next governor of the great state of Florida.” He also made some parting shots, as losing candidates often do.
By Thursday, though, Gillum’s language had shifted. As the final ballots in his race were counted and the closing gap looked as if it could trigger an automatic recount, his campaign instructed the state to “Count every vote.” The Gillum team’s official statement clarified that the concession was based on “the best information available about the number of outstanding ballots left to count.” Gillum explained, “Since that time, it has become clear there are many more uncounted ballots than was originally reported.” The statement was a clear reverse-concession.
Electoral concessions are not in any way binding; to the contrary, they arise out of, and are a nod to, a candidate’s faith in other electoral norms. In evoking the supposed sanctity of formal concessions, Trump was alluding to a venerable convention of the American democratic process. As it happens, though, refusing to concede — or even revoking a concession — may be a way to defend underlying norms of elections themselves. It acknowledges that the election isn’t over until the votes are counted, no matter how things play out. Perhaps more important, it allows candidates to continue arguing for the very issues that drove their campaigns.
Gillum’s latest move follows Democrat Stacey Abrams’s refusal to concede in the gubernatorial race in Georgia. After tweeting on Wednesday, “Make no mistake: This race is not over,” the Abrams campaign has been pushing for a recount and asking absentee voters and those who used a provisional ballot to make sure their votes were counted.
The candidates’ refusal to concede has drawn criticism, especially as their races are thrown into chaos, heading now for a more dramatic finish. However, surprise about their anti-concession rhetoric warrants a larger discussion: Gillum and Abrams do not owe you or their opponents a concession. In fact, resisting a concession is the best way both candidates can argue for themselves.
The demand that a candidate concede to their winning opponent came about with the growing role of electronic media in politics. As political scientist John R. Vile writes in the book “Presidential Winners and Losers: Words of Victory and Concession,” the genre developed in tandem with technologies — the telegraph, telephone and everything that came after — that made it easier to monitor election results as they rolled in. Before the turn of the 20th century, candidates mainly conceded in interpersonal interactions, usually sending letters to winning candidates and notes to important supporters. However, ever since Democrat William Jennings Bryant sent a telegram to William McKinley to end the 1896 presidential election, candidates running in national races have tended to follow the same pattern of officially ending the campaign. A private concession is followed by an official phone call, followed by a longer speech addressing a national audience.
Voters understandably expect and need concessions. As Vile notes, the concession “ritually condones a victory to the winning candidate as a noble act in a great epic of Democracy.” The very legitimacy of the democratic process requires a peaceful transition in elected offices. Since most candidates recognize the importance of these norms, they usually make some statement that declares defeat while calling for unity behind the victor. But in highlighting the purpose of their own campaign, conceding candidates also usually argue for the importance of their efforts, articulate their goals for the future and call on supporters to keep up the fight. In this sense, Gillum’s original concession was entirely ordinary.
However, no candidate owes their opponents or voters a public concession. Candidates who lose by enormous margins sometimes skip the concession altogether, or turn their statements into calls for continued opposition. Suffering lopsided defeats, Barry Goldwater, George McGovern and Walter Mondale all turned their concessions into battle cries, as have most third-party candidates.
Candidates in races with a surprising finish also deviate from the norms of the concession speech. For instance, in the 2000 presidential election, Democrat Al Gore famously retracted the concession he made to George W. Bush over the phone. Gore then took more than a month to formerly concede, following the recount in Florida and the dramatic Supreme Court case that decided the election. In alignment with previous campaigns that have seen surprisingly close results, Gillum, Abrams and their respective supporters have every right to instead call for recounts if they meet the proper legal requirements in their states.
For the Gillum and Abrams campaigns, refusing to concede may even be an effective political tactic. For instance, Trump’s success came partially from rejecting norms of important political speeches. He deviated from the hopefulness that usually constitutes announcement speeches with derogatory references to Mexican immigrants. He memorably transformed his inaugural address from the typical speech of unification to a condemnation of Washington “elites,” made up of “politicians who are all talk and no action.” Instead of selling a hopeful vision of America, he fed his audience lines about “American carnage.” Trump knows, perhaps better than anyone, that people pay attention when norms are violated. It is one reason his supporters see him as an authentic fighter.
Gillum’s refusal to concede disrupts political norms that typically end the formal campaign, thereby highlighting what is at stake for Democrats in Florida and across the nation. His emotional concession on election night had made his position clear. His campaign is a quest for “what is decent, and what is right”; it is, in his reckoning, a battle of “good” and “evil.” Speaking for people who have felt historically marginalized, Gillum claimed in the speech that “we have to have a table in this state that is long enough, that is wide enough, that is deep enough to fit all of us.” He challenged supporters to “make sure that people know we plan to have a seat at this thing, and we will not be ignored.”
Conceding in Florida and Georgia would mean recognizing the legitimacy of the results as they stand. For Gillum, that means giving up before all votes are counted, and before executing his right to a recount. For Abrams, that means recognizing the legitimacy of an electoral process run by her opponent, Brian Kemp, who was Georgia’s secretary of state and who faced widespread criticism over alleged voter suppression. To accept these results would go against the very things they claimed to be campaigning for. And to reject the norms of the concession means we are still talking about their campaigns. Until recounts happen to restore our faith in the democratic process, that is precisely the point.