Win or lose, the candidates have an important job on Tuesday night.
It's going to take a lot of work to mend the divides our country will face after the 2016 election. Historically, it's been the role of the losing candidate to offer that first spark of hope during their concession speech.
You don't have to look any further than the past few decades of concession speeches given by losing candidates, messages they'd rather not have had to share, before it becomes clear how important the humbling act of placing the good of the country above one's own ego is for the post-election healing process.
"The nation, as you know, is at a critical point," 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney said in a speech conceding defeat to President Obama. "At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work.”
Good concession speeches find a way to express the disappointment of losing an election along with a call to action and a pledge to lead by example moving forward.
Four years prior, Sen. John McCain offered his own heartfelt election night message.
"Sen. Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed," McCain said in 2008. "No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country, and I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.”
Those words — "No doubt many of those differences remain" — are key. An election cannot and will not wipe away differences; it can only help guide us in how we work to resolve them. After all, McCain and Obama had the same goal: to make America the best it could be. They just differed on how to accomplish that.
“I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our goodwill and earnest effort to find ways to come together," McCain urged his supporters, "to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited."
Democratic nominee John Kerry also made American unity a central point in his 2004 speech congratulating President George W. Bush on his re-election.
"Today I hope that we can begin the healing," said Kerry. "But in an American election, there are no losers. Because whether or not our candidates are successful, the next morning, we all wake up as Americans. And that — that is the greatest privilege and the most remarkable good fortune that can come to us on earth."
“With that gift also comes obligation. We are required now to work together for the good of our country," Kerry said. "In the days ahead, we must find common cause. We must join in common effort without remorse or recrimination, without anger or rancor. America is in need of unity and longing for a larger measure of compassion.”
“This is America. Just as we fight hard when the stakes are high, we close ranks and come together when the contest is done," Vice President Al Gore said in his concession speech after a highly controversial election.
The election of 2000 will remain one of the most controversial moments in our country's young history, with the Supreme Court issuing a ruling that effectively declared George W. Bush president amid a recount in Florida. Though he strongly disagreed with the Supreme Court's decision, Gore conceded with a speech intended to urge the country into unity behind President-elect Bush.
"[While] there will be time enough to debate our continuing differences, now is the time to recognize that that which unites us is greater than that which divides us," Gore reminded his supporters. "While we yet hold and do not yield our opposing beliefs, there is a higher duty than the one we owe to political party. This is America and we put country before party; we will stand together behind our new president.”
We may disagree, and we may at times consider ourselves opponents. What we must never do, however, is consider ourselves enemies of one another. From Mondale to Dukakis to Carter to Ford to George H.W. Bush, history is filled with truly great, healing speeches delivered by the losing candidates at the end of an election.
The most notable concession message, however, may have come from Sen. Bob Dole in his 1996 loss to President Bill Clinton.
After telling the crowd he had congratulated Clinton on being re-elected, Dole was met with loud boos. That's when he delivered a line that remains as important today as it was 20 years ago.
"No, wait a minute. Wait a minute," Dole said, trying to regain the crowd's attention. "No, I've said repeatedly — I've said repeatedly in this campaign that the president was my opponent and not my enemy. And I wish him well and I pledge my support in whatever advances the cause of a better America because that's what the race was about in the first place — a better America as we go into the next century."
As we close the book on the election of 2016, let's remember that while differences exist, we are neighbors and not enemies.
Whether a Tuesday night speech from one of the candidates helps prompt the healing process or the losing candidate deviates from this important historical tradition, it's on us to come together, to work together, and to be Americans together. There's a reason concession speeches have shared common themes election after election: because the message remains true, even as our country is forever changing.
On Wednesday morning, the world will still be here. Let's do what we can to help make that existence one we can all live with.