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When it comes to the Nevada caucuses, all bets are off

20th February, 10:10

Charles Krupa / AP

From left, Democratic presidential candidates former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, shakes hands with former Vice President Joe Biden as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., watches Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, before the start of a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC News, Apple News, and WMUR-TV at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.

By John Sadler (contact)

Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020 | 2 a.m.

In 2016, a British businessman risked about $6,200 on the chance that Donald Trump would become president of the United States. He won $124,000.

The presidency isn't the only political contest where odds can be found. Oddsmakers with William Hill in the United Kingdom have drilled all the way down to the state level, setting odds on candidates to prevail in the Nevada Democratic caucuses on Saturday. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is listed as a minus-300 favorite (betting $300 to win $100). Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor, sits at +500 (betting $100 to win $500) and former Vice President Joe Biden is at +800 (betting $100 to win $800).

Though those in Nevada might want a piece of the action, they'll have to be content observing. Some countries allow betting on our elections, but gamblers in U.S. are limited on what they can bet on, even here in the center of the gaming universe.

By law, Nevada bars betting on "the outcome of any election for any public office both within and without the state of Nevada." You also can't wager on events such as the Academy Awards or Miss America pageant.

"I think it's silly. It's long overdue," South Point bookmaker Jimmy Vaccaro said. "I don't think there's anything wrong with it, and I believe if they'd do it once, they'd say, 'This isn't as bad [as we thought].'"

Professional, collegiate and Olympic sports are the only options on the betting menu in Nevada. Other events must be approved by the Gaming Control Board on a single-use basis with the requirement that bettors don't have inside knowledge on the outcome. For example, the Academy Awards have never been made available for wagering, because there are at least a few people who know the results ahead of time.

Vaccaro said he thinks any concerns about "fixing" an election are overblown, as there's too much security and too many eyes on the process for that to be a feasible goal from anyone taking bets on the process. "I think that's ludicrous to even consider anymore, with today's technology," he explained.

Michael Lawton, a senior research analyst with the Gaming Control Board, said there hasn't been an attempt to allow betting on elections in seven years. That's when a measure heard by the Nevada Legislature didn't pass, and Lawton said a similar bill has not been introduced since.

If this issue is again brought to the Legislature, Vaccaro has a solid argument: Being able to wager on an election would boost voter turnout. After all, if you bet on a candidate, you've got an incentive to make sure that candidate wins.

"I'd like to bet you that if you bet $100 on Elizabeth Warren, you'd go to the polls and you'd be sure your vote was counted," he said.

Even if it didn't significantly affect voter turnout, it would definitely be a draw for sports books, Vaccaro said. It could even dwarf one of the country's largest annual cultural events. "It would make the Super Bowl look like a little dance party if we could take bets on it," Vaccaro said.

Jennifer Roberts, a former UNLV adjunct professor who now serves as director of sports gaming regulation at the Tennessee Education Lottery Corporation, said there's little national appetite to legalize betting on elections. She said recent federal law changes allowing sports betting nationwide have taken up much of the political bandwidth on the issue. "I don't see a lot of politicians wanting to advocate for that position," she said.

That means all wagering has to be done outside the country, where Sanders is the favorite at minus-150 (betting $100 to win $150), Buttigieg is 6-1 (betting $100 to win $600) and Biden is 12-1 (betting $100 to win $1,200).

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.

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