Will Trump concede 2020? No candidate in modern history has refused 'voluntary gesture' but no law requires it
Traditionally, a presidential candidate promptly acknowledges defeat in a concession speech if they lose the election to facilitate a peaceful transition of power. In 2008, John McCain graciously conceded to Barack Obama and has often been touted as an example of the tradition done right. “The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly," McCain said at the time, USA Today reported. "A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Sen. Barack Obama to congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love."
Liberal commentator Van Jones said in an October 2020 Ted Talk that a concession speech is a "time-honored voluntary gesture" despite not being a part of the U.S. Constitution. Jones is just one among many who have speculated about the scenario that Trump refuses to concede if he loses the 2020 presidential election, especially after he has previously declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
If a candidate refuses to concede, inner workings of the election process could be ripped open -- such as the Electoral College -- and later used to decide the election in an unprecedented way. According to USA Today, this would mean the results may be ultimately decided by the courts or by rarely visited sections of the law.
On the other hand, none of that would occur if the losing candidate publicly concedes the election - especially since their supporters would eventually accept the results themselves.
But it isn't necessary that presidential election results and public concessions from the losing candidate would always occur at roughly the same time. "As a legal matter, a candidate unwilling to concede can contest the election into January," as stated in a report by the Transition Integrity Project. The initiative studies possible scenarios that would risk the integrity of the 2020 election. That said, a candidate refusing to concede a race has no bearing on the mechanisms for projecting a presidential winner in the media, officially counting the votes, and formally electing a president, per the report. In modern history, there has never been a presidential candidate who has refused to concede. According to NPR, the modern understanding of a public concession dates back to 1896, when William Jennings Bryan sent opponent William McKinley a cordial telegram instead of making a speech. But ever since, candidates have stuck to the tradition of publicly accepting defeat and celebrating the continuation of democracy in radio addresses or on live television.
It's worth noting that a candidate can take back a concession, and it's happened before in a presidential race. In 2000, Vice President Al Gore conceded to George W. Bush amid an election, but was forced to retract the concession when the race tightened.
"He called an hour ago to concede. He just called us back to retract that concession,″ Bush campaign communications director Karen Hughes said at the time, according to the Associated Press. "It’s unbelievable."
University of Arkansas professor Ryan Neville-Shepard, who specializes in political communication, noted in a Washington Post column in 2018 that such scenarios are possible and are an informal part of US elections. "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," Neville-Shepard wrote.