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Frustrated Gamblers Turn to Politics as the Only Game in Town

30th March, 22:42

The cancellation of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament's opening weekend (March 19-22) -- typically one of the biggest betting events of the year -- has left what some bookies estimate is a $140-million wound in the betting industry. All that disposable income hasn't gone unwagered, however. Some savvy gamblers are finding that they can chase shifting odds on the 2020 U.S. presidential election or turn a quick buck wagering on incidental proposition bets like how many times President Trump tweets "Chinese Virus" from March 21 to 22 (if you guessed more than once, you lost), and whether Joe Biden will pick Elizabeth Warren as his running mate (bettors think she's fading; she's gone from 8 to 1 on March 5 to a 12-to-1 shot as of Thursday), not to mention a host of politics adjacent bets on the price of oil, the Dow and the value of Netflix stock.

Interestingly, the surge in political betting has exposed an uncomfortable gray area in the law.

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PAPSA), a federal ban on sports gambling in every state except Oregon, Montana, Delaware and, of course, Nevada. Since then, 40 states have at least introduced legislation to legalize sports betting, with 16 states already in some phase of implementation. But while some Vegas bookmakers post odds on an election or, say, the Academy Awards, it's solely for entertainment purposes. They don't take actual bets. As of now, no state does, though a couple such as Indiana and New Jersey approved wagering on the most recent Oscars, possibly leaving the door open for politics in the future.

PredictIt, a political-betting website, operates openly out of Washington D.C., taking prop bets on everything from whether Trump will be re-elected to how many times he'll tweet in a week, under the exemption that the site is a non-profit collecting data for academic research. The site pays out more like the stock market -- you buy a share in, say, Kamala Harris for $.50. If she wins, you get $1. If she loses, you get nothing. The even foggier realm of online and offshore betting sites, unleashed by the Supreme Court decision, has opened the virtual cages for betting by anyone on just about anything.

Meanwhile in the U.K., where gambling on politics has been legal for decades, elections are big business for bookies.

According to Matthew Shaddick, head of politics betting at Ladbrokes Coral Group, a betting group based in London, the past 10 years have seen steady growth on wagering on the outcomes of votes like the Scottish independence referendum and Brexit. But he says when it comes to action, nothing really compares with American politics, with its direct elections and outsized personalities.

"The Trump election was huge," he says. "In general, presidential elections are a nice binary option -- in European elections, you've got complicated parliamentary processes. But Trump is such a well-known and controversial figure. The 2020 U.S. general election will no doubt be the next big thing. It's clear to me from all the money we're taking in that it will break all the records."

Trump's surprise win in 2016 brought U.K. bookmakers around 100 million pounds of action ($85.2 million), Shaddick estimates, equivalent to a huge soccer match and much bigger than the Wimbledon final or any major golf tournament. He believes that Trump's bid for re-election this November could be two- to three-times as big. As of late this week, Ladbrokes listed Trump as even money (essentially a 50-50 chance) to win over Joe Biden, the odds-on favorite to emerge from the Democratic primaries as the party's nominee. Until recently, most oddsmakers had Trump as a heavy favorite to win re-election, but that has changed since the outbreak of Covid-19 and the stock market's tumble.

"It's going to continue growing," says Shaddick. "The fact that sports are shut down, the fact that they're not going to have the Olympics, there's no doubt the U.S. election will be the biggest market we trade here."

Whether Americans are actually betting their bankrolls on the political horse race -- either legally, illegally or somewhere in between -- it's clear that there is growing public interest in following the odds.

During the last Democratic debate, FanDuel, the online fantasy sports website, posted a free-to-enter $10,000 online contest where contestants had to provide the most correct answers to a series of prop-like questions: which candidate is first to mention washing your hands and whether Joe Biden would utter his trademark epithet "malarkey." More akin to fantasy league football than straight-up betting, the FanDuel event was a way for sports fans to scratch their itch in the absence of a televised game. And USA Today reported that there were 60,000 unique entries.

American gambling media is also starting to follow the odds more closely. Action Network, the new one-stop-site for all things sports gambling, launched by Chad Millman, an ex-ESPN editor who started that company's gambling news page called "Chalk," has made politics a fulltime beat. Other outlets, from the New York Daily News to the Baltimore Sun to Forbes have published recent updates on the current presidential odds.

"We serve hardcore bettors with day-to-day coverage, but this definitely matters to more than our typical base," says Katie Richcreek, a senior editor who writes about politics at Action Network. "Most of our traffic on this coverage is coming through organic Google searches."

The line between bookmaking and good old political analysis is hard to detect at times -- at least up to the point where money changes hands.

"Being on top of your market and your assessment and being well informed is the most important thing in betting," says Angus Ham, political betting analyst and head political trader with BookMaker, who has been setting odds and betting politics since before the 1992 Clinton/Bush/Perot presidential election. "You read the press wires, Real Clear Politics for a collection of articles. You watch CNN and listen to the news quite a lot. In the U.S., you look at the polls that are relevant. The three most important things are research, research and research."

Richcreek says interest started spiking before Covid-19 set in, back in the weeks leading up to Super Tuesday, but that she believes as long as sports remain on hiatus, she expects readers to be following the presidential odds -- whether they're actually putting money on the race or not.

"I don't know if it's because they're interested in betting on it or if they're looking for ways to gauge the race," says Richcreek.

There is debate about whether or not betting odds more accurately predict political outcomes than many models and polls, though not much evidence that one is better than the other. But Richcreek says odds might be simpler for people to understand.

"As long as there are races, there will be interest in how sports books are portraying them in their odds," she says. "We try to translate odds in terms that readers will understand. I think that's easier for people to understand than models."