The evening of the 2016 Iowa caucuses was a night of victory speeches, not necessarily attached to actual victories.
Despite finishing in third, behind Texas senator Ted Cruz and New York businessman Donald Trump, Marco Rubio delivered arguably the most triumphant speech of the night.
“This is the moment they said would never happen,” he told a room full of supporters. “For months they told us we had no chance!”
Shortly afterwards former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders both delivered exultant addresses before the Iowa Democratic caucus results were finalized (Clinton ended up winning by the tiniest of margins).
Victory speeches in defeat are actually a bit of a tradition in US presidential primaries.
The most famous example of the genre is Bill Clinton’s infamous “comeback kid” speech before finishing in second place in the 1992 New Hampshire primary. “Though we don’t know yet what the final tally will be,” he said, “I think we know enough to say with some certainty that New Hampshire, tonight, has made Bill Clinton the comeback kid.”
After a surprising loss at the 2004 Iowa caucuses, former Vermont governor Howard Dean opted for a manic pep rally in place of a concession speech. “If you had told us one year ago that we were going to come third in Iowa, we would have given anything for that,” Dean told a crowd of his supporters—perhaps a bit disingenuously, as he had been widely projected to come in first.
What came next was what some commentators credit for the ultimate failure of his campaign: the notorious “Dean Scream,” which has been chocked up to a myriad of variables, from microphone feedback to a case of the flu.
Later that year, in New Hampshire, former Connecticut senator and one-time Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman gave a weirdly optimistic speech to supporters ahead of coming in a distant fifth place. “Based on the returns that we’ve seen tonight… we are in a three-way split decision for third place!” he said.
In 2004, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich lost every election on Super Tuesday—a day on which the largest number of US primaries are held simultaneously—except his home state of Georgia. Nevertheless, he told an assembled crowd following his single win, “I hope the analysts in Washington and New York, who spent June and July explaining our campaign was dead, will watch this tonight and learn a little bit from this crowd and this place. We survived the national elites efforts to kill us in the summer because of you.”
And, of course, events last night echoed a rather presumptuous 2008 speech delivered by Hillary Clinton following the South Dakota primary. Although she won that particular contest, on the very same day Barack Obama secured enough delegate votes to ensure his nomination as the Democratic candidate for president.
“Tonight I’d like all of us to take a moment and recognize [Barack Obama] and his supporters for all they have accomplished,” she told the assembled crowd, which periodically broke into chants of “Yes, she can!” Actually, she couldn’t then—but this time around, she might.