Five Lessons from Election Night
From the speeches that won the evening
Whether it’s a victory or a concession — or even a set of undelivered remarks — election night speeches offer powerful lessons for all kinds of speakers.
We asked West Wing Writers to share a few of their favorites and what we can learn from them. Here’s what they said:
Skip the preamble
On election night 2021, Michelle Wu kicked off her victory speech, “So one of my sons asked me the other night if boys can be elected mayor in Boston.” Now that’s an opener. When our colleague Kate Childs Graham shared this speech with me, she astutely pointed out how Wu references her historic win indirectly; rather than tell us she is the first woman of color to serve as Boston’s mayor, she shows us the impact — and the result is powerful. I’d add that skipping the preamble is powerful, too. There’s no throat clearing at the start of Wu’s speech. Really, there’s no need for it: everyone in her audience is eager to celebrate her momentous victory, and she delivers.
– M.E. Ficarra
When Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980, his concession speech started with something of a confession.
“I promised you 4 years ago that I would never lie to you,” he began. “So, I can’t stand here tonight and say it doesn’t hurt.”
His speech went on to make the points that all good concession speeches should, but it’s the rawness of his first sentences that stands out to me. There he was, a sitting president just denied a second term, and it was his impulse to be honest — to admit he was hurt. It was not to place blame, or to put on a front of unaffectedness, and I appreciate how that openness frames the rest of the speech. Everything else feels more genuine because his emotions clearly were — a useful reminder that a speaker’s emotions can be as meaningful as their arguments.
– Annabelle Long
When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her first congressional race in 2018, her victory speech cemented her new role as a leader in progressive politics. It’s one of my favorite election night speeches overall, but one moment in the middle offers a particularly notable lesson. Right as AOC was in the middle of a point about wealth inequality, the crowd groaned; they discovered that Beto O’Rourke fell short in his Senate run in Texas. Rather than continuing to push her prepared point on the distraught crowd, she paused and stepped away from the podium. She clearly shared their disappointment and spoke directly from the heart. “What we need to do as well is realize that these short-term losses do not mean that we have lost in the long run.” She transformed what could have been an awkward moment into a triumphant one by understanding what her audience needed and being flexible enough to provide it.
– Emily Sakai
Know your audience
Rep. Liz Cheney’s election night concession speech was classic Republican fare, from the candidate’s last name to her patriotic rhetoric. She checked every box, referencing the party of Lincoln, quoting a Gold Star father, and warning against the country’s “lawlessness, and violence.”
But while the signposts were the same, the destination was different: an emphatic rebuke of Donald Trump’s election denialism. Cheney used tropes that she knew would resonate with the Republican audience she sought to reach, steering them towards a conclusion they have been slow to embrace. She argued that “standing up for truth” honors fallen soldiers, condemned the lawless violence of January 6th, and called for the “party of Lincoln” to choose the unity he preached.
She used the modern Republican Party’s own language to build the case against its extremist factions, concluding powerfully: “I love what our party has stood for. But I love my country more.”
– Julia Ishiyama
Tell a story
Representative Cori Bush’s 2020 victory speech was a masterclass in leading with love.
She started by thanking her community. Then, all of a sudden, sans transition: “so, I was running — I was that person running for my life across a parking lot, running from an abuser.” Bush unapologetically described her journey to become the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress: as an uninsured, single parent; as a nurse; as a COVID-19 patient struggling to survive.
I love this speech because it’s so real. Bush established trust and inspired hope through raw, vulnerable storytelling. Instead of relying on platitudes and adjectives to celebrate her underdog win, Bush let her stories captivate the audience and inform her message. That message, too, was blunt and (literally) from the heart: “Your congresswoman-elect loves you. And I need you to get that.”
– Jacob Jordan
What are your favorite election night speeches? Share them with us in the comments.
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.
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