Cloudbet unpacks some of the narratives behind the market moves in a furious and fluctuating betting race for the US presidency
Operators have been offering outrights on the 2020 US election for years, with the market opening immediately after President Donald Trump’s against-the-odds victory over Hillary Clinton four years ago.
On the eve of Election Day, betting pundits are rightly asking if Trump can do it again. There are some obvious similarities to four years ago: While we know much more about him, The Donald is still The Donald, and his Democrat opponent is – once again – a high-profile established Washington lifer in Joe Biden.
The other thing that hasn’t changed are the nightmares that Trump is still giving operators – which is precisely the subject of this article.
To set the stage, some background. Outright markets in the early stages had a diverse array of candidates, and it was really only after Trump and Biden secured their respective parties’ nominations that the field was whittled down to our main protagonists – effectively shutting the door on bettors’ hopes for long-shot candidates (though you can still get a bet on Jo Jorgensen).
Initial odds are formed on presidential candidates by operators in pretty much the same way as a major sporting event: The book takes a view on the chances of each candidate winning, splitting up the 100% quantum of probabilities between the number of candidates left in the race.
In politics betting, that view might be influenced by things like how healthy or mentally sharp a candidate looks, how much relevant experience they can bring to the role, what skeletons are in (or in some case, out of) their closet, how influential they are in galvanising their parties around them, or how influential they could be in galvanising communities within the country. The book distills these factors out into its own view on anticipated investment and liability controls – i.e., how much exposure is it willing to take on any one candidate.
In short – as with a sporting contest – what are the chances of A prevailing over B, what influences those chances, and what price would you charge someone to back those chances (really, it boils down to what’s the price at which a book would be willing to accept the risk of losing a bet)?
Not enough data, captain
But there is a major obstacle when it comes to setting prices for elections: the lack of observable data or analysis. Yes, there are a plethora of polls and more news and rumour than you can swing a cat at for the present election – but it’s all down to one contest – one that has never played out before.
Yes, Trump has contested and won one election, while Biden has two electoral victories to his name, but they were both as Barack Obama’s sidekick. This time, it’s Trump versus Biden – for the first (and probably only) time. Operators don’t know, really, what variables matter in this instance that will ultimately influence the outcome of the contest, because there is no historical experience to go by.
Contrast this with (in a Covid-free era) the number of times Manchester United might face Arsenal in a season – or, to equate this to a US election cycle, across four years. Oddsmakers have millions of data points, yes, but they also have a rock-solid understanding on which of those data points matter most for a particular contest: because they’ve seen it before, dozens of times.
Let’s accept then that prices on the US election will have to be taken with a great dollop of good faith, and are more a vote of trust in the bookmaker setting the odds.
Next, is how bettors respond to those prices based on what influences their perceptions of value and candidate probabilities. And the quantum of bets they place ostensibly is a good safe indicator for operators to shape the prices for either candidate. We say “ostensibly” with good reason…
In polls, we trust
In any election, the polls certainly can sway voting intentions – and betting odds. Current polls can be viewed as a reflection of all that is currently known, or perceived, about a candidate’s ability to win an election. In the absence of any substantive knowledge or ability to predict the future, a poll is the best guide, the “best real-world estimate” of either candidate’s chances of victory.
If you can trust the polls, you can simply equate a reliable poll percentage with an implied probability, and you have a reliable price indicator – right?
Wrong, as anyone who followed betting odds during the 2016 election will tell you. Prices on Trump in the lead up to Election Day had widened as far as 9 (+800) – implying a win probability of 11%.
And we know the result – an improbable victory to The Donald – and surely some very happy punters to boot.
So here then is the second major challenge for bookmakers: Trump has beaten the odds before. Do you really want to expose your business to massive losses by pricing him too far out of the market, whatever the polls are telling you?
Where’s the action?
Bettors are clearly aware of what happened in 2016 – and books are clearly seeing substantial interest on Trump, in spite of what the election polls indicate. More than 85% of the money that Cloudbet has taken on the US election has been on Trump and the Republicans – and it’s a theme evident at other books as well.
While there could be a point made about the predispositions within the bitcoin community that might make them more right-leaning (if not directly Trump-supporting), people are certainly betting that he could do it again.
That being said, why is Biden still favoured to win by every book on the street? Someone must be betting on him, in size. While we can’t speak to their motivations, the point we can make from a pricing standpoint is that it pays to be aware of where the action is, and who has it.
We estimate that betting exchanges are seeing roughly half of the action on the US election, with Betfair clearly taking some sizable Biden bets. We’re not suggesting that exchanges are the key indicator of an event’s outcome – but from a bettor’s perspective, it’s good to know where the action is to form individual views on value in the odds.
And there we have it, ladies and gentlemen. As of this writing, the current odds give Trump a 37% chance of victory.
His opponent is at 63%. Who will win?
We can’t say for sure, but we hope that with this article, you’re better equipped to understand what goes into these odds.
What we CAN say: where Donald J. Trump is concerned, anything is possible.