UW News

November 9, 2020

Professor Margaret O’Mara on history around election concessions nationally and in Washington

UW News

Concessions from U.S. presidents usually happen quickly, without drama, says UW history professor Margaret O’Mara.

woman standing in street

Margaret O’Mara

“When elections are closely fought, and the outcome comes down to only a few votes or a recount, the drama increases. But ultimately, when a final decision is made or last vote counted, the loser makes a gracious admission of defeat,” she says.

This year may be different.

“President Trump has signaled that he may not go as easily. If he refuses to concede and continues to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the results, it would be a grave danger to our political institutions. The peaceful transition of power has been a hallmark of the American presidency since the very start, no matter how contentious or closely fought an election,” says O’Mara, who is the Howard & Frances Keller Endowed Professor of history.

This isn’t the first tightly contested national campaign. But it would be the first where the incumbent refuses to concede.

In 2000, Al Gore decided that, for the good of the nation, he needed to accept the Supreme Court’s ruling to stop the ongoing recount in Florida, O’Mara says. A similar series of events happened here in Washington state in 2004 when Dino Rossi conceded to Christine Gregoire after losing by just 130 votes.

Now, concessions aren’t always polite, O’Mara points out. When Richard Nixon lost the California governor’s race in 1962 (after losing to JFK for the presidency two years earlier) he famously grumbled to journalists, “you don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” Of course, it wasn’t — a few years later he was running for president once again, winning in 1968.

The race for governor in Washington also includes a candidate who hasn’t conceded to his opponent, as of Monday. O’Mara adds, “Loren Culp ran as a conservative, Trumpist Republican, so perhaps it is not surprising that he too would not go quietly, although the margin of Gov. Jay Inslee’s victory will make his case more difficult for either election officials to agree to investigate or voters to support.”

Inslee received 57% of the statewide vote to Culp’s 43%.

For more information, contact O’Mara at momara@uw.edu or www.margaretomara.com.