Most people prefer to bet on what they’re familiar with, whether it’s their local football team, horse racing, political betting or the results of their favorite reality TV show. There’s always an added bit of fun, though, when you put down a few pounds on something a bit more exotic. That’s why bookmakers love to set odds on events like the Super Bowl and the U.S. presidential election. Betting shops and sites do a lot of action on foreign propositions, and punters have shown that they enjoy getting “involved,” even if they’re not overly knowledgeable about the event.
If you’ve ever been tempted by American presidential elections betting, here’s a primer on exactly what you’re gambling on – and how to make an educated bet.
The US Presidential Election
You probably know that America holds its voting for President every four years, that the two viable parties are the Democrats and the Republicans, and that no President can win election for more than two terms. Looking forward, the next U.S. election will be held in November 2016, the major parties will nominate their candidates in the summer of that year, and Barack Obama is not eligible for a third term.
What you may not know (or may have learned in school but quickly forgotten) is that the winner of the popular vote is not automatically the President. This has happened four times in history, with the most recent example in 2000. Al Gore received the most total votes but George W. Bush was eventually elected. (More about that odd situation in a moment.) This is crucial information to consider if you’re thinking about betting on U.S. election results: you’re really not betting on who will get the most overall votes; you’re really voting on which candidate will win a few key states.
From here, it gets a bit complicated, so if you’re just looking to punt on the “hot” candidates for 2016, you can safely skip this section and move on to our information on the upcoming election. If you’re a serious handicapper and want to be able to fully evaluate the field and the possibilities, read on.
For presidential voting only, America works on an odd “electoral college” system. Each state is assigned a certain number of electoral votes (in simple terms, the number is based on the state’s population, with each state guaranteed at least three). In most cases, whichever candidate wins the most votes in a state receives all of that state’s electoral votes. (Two states use a more complicated system of deciding electoral votes, but that’s largely irrelevant.) The electoral votes are then added together, and the candidate with the majority of electoral votes becomes President.
The system was designed to give at least some influence to smaller states; otherwise, populous states like New York and California could have enough power to completely override the votes of tiny states like Delaware and Rhode Island. There have been numerous attempts to change the electoral college system over the years, but none have succeeded.
There’s one more fly in the ointment. A plurality of electoral votes isn’t enough; a candidate must win a true majority (270 out of 538). If there is a strong third-party candidate in the race, he or she could conceivably win enough electoral votes to deny either major candidate a true majority; in that case, members of the U.S. House of Representatives vote to elect the President.
This has only happened twice, in 1800 and 1824. In the last 75 years, only two third-party candidates have even won electoral votes: segregationists Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968. Thurmond’s electoral total may have swung the presidency from Republican Thomas Dewey to Democrat Harry Truman; Wallace had no effect on the eventual victory by Republican Richard Nixon.
In many years, however, third-party results in individual states may have actually decided elections. For example, the hotly-contested 2000 results in Florida ended with Bush being awarded Florida’s electoral votes, after a conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an end to lengthy vote recounts and declared Bush the Florida winner. However, populist third-party candidate Ralph Nader won nearly three percent of the state’s popular vote. Analysts believe that if Nader hadn’t been in the race, most of those votes would have gone to Gore, meaning Gore would have won Florida’s popular vote – thereby winning the state’s electoral vote – and the 2000 presidency.
For decades, a number of regions have been considered “safe” for each party; the last time there was a “runaway” victory was in 1984, when Ronald Reagan trounced Walter Mondale (although Bill Clinton did comfortably win re-election in 1996). In general terms, the Democrats can count on almost all of the states in the Northeast and on the West Coast, while Republicans safely rely on the Deep South and Midwest (with the exception of Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Rust Belt).
That leaves a crucial group of “swing states.” The most important ones in the last few elections have been Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Nevada, Iowa, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Colorado. Obama won all but North Carolina in 2012, giving him the election. Florida has been the most contentious state over the last 20 years, while Ohio has voted for the eventual winner in every election since 1964.
To sum up, if you’re interested in fully handicapping the field, you need to look at more than just nationwide popularity polls. You must consider:
- Are there “home region” candidates who could potentially steal votes in otherwise safe areas – for example, a Democrat from the South or a Republican from the Northeast?
- Who’s leading the statewide polling in swing states – particularly Florida and Ohio?
- Are there viable third-party candidates who could win electoral votes, or more likely, drain popular votes from other candidates in crucial swing states?
- Are there swing states which have actually voted the same way enough times that they can now be safely considered either Democratic or Republican? (Demographic shifts in states like Nevada are just one example.)
If you’ve followed along this far, congratulations. Now, let’s take a closer look at the 2016 election, the candidates, and the odds.
The 2016 Presidential Nominations
American parties choose their nominees through a lengthy schedule of primary elections and caucuses. In some states, all party members cast ballots to select their choice as nominee; in others party members gather together for regional mini-conventions (called “caucuses”) where they choose a candidate. Still other states combine the two methods.
The primary elections and caucuses are held on a rolling schedule, starting in February 2016 with Iowa’s caucuses and New Hampshire’s primaries. They then pick up steam throughout late winter and spring, highlighted by several “Super Tuesday” elections when a number of important states all vote on the same days. Throughout the process, weaker candidates who can’t muster support drop out of the race, while others gain momentum. The eventual nominee is usually known by process of elimination well before the final primaries are held in June.
This is important for punters betting on either who the parties’ nominees will be, or on the eventual winner. Candidate odds will change drastically after each Tuesday’s voting, so it’s very important to pay attention to pre-primary media reports on polling. A candidate who’s falling by the wayside in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary polling is unlikely to stay in the running for long – making them a bad bet. On the other hand, a hopeful who is making a surprising showing in Iowa and New Hampshire polling would be a terrific choice as a long shot punt, before the odds start to shift in their favor. The days before “Super Tuesday” elections are another important period during which you should watch the polls closely and get some good odds for up-and-comers.
Both parties ratify their nominations at conventions in the summer, and U.S. Labor Day (September 1) is the unofficial “kick-off” for the campaign season, which ends on Election Day, November 4. Don’t pay too much attention to the head-to-head polling before Labor Day, because each party gets a post-convention positive “bounce” after a week’s exposure on national television. September and October is when things get serious, and you’ll see regular daily polling on how the candidates are doing so you can adjust your bets accordingly. Candidates’ policy speeches, reactions to national and world events, and inevitable “revelations” about the hopefuls’ personal lives are important, of course. But remember, for presidential election betting it’s more important to pay attention to polling in swing states – where the election is really decided.
Be sure to pay attention during the last weekend of campaigning. There’s a lot of “disinformation” released by the candidates in the few days running up to the election, but the actual outcome is usually preordained by then. The swing in odds triggered by publicity barrages in the last few days may actually help you – by swinging the odds in the wrong direction and giving you a chance to make a sweet punt at the last minute.
For the very best polling information and predictions, keep a close eye on fivethirtyeight.com – revered statistics wizard Nate Silver predicted 49 out of 50 states correctly in 2008 (missing only one state which Obama lost by 1%), and predicted all 50 states correctly in 2012. No other pundit even came close.
The Candidates and the Odds
OK, it’s time to get to the juicy stuff. First, a quick look at recent trends, which aren’t difficult to summarize.
- Only one minority candidate has ever been elected U.S. President (Obama), and no women have ever been elected President.
- Almost all Presidents have been Christian; there has been one Catholic (Kennedy) and two Quakers (Hoover and Nixon). There have been no Muslims or Jews, and none has been religiously “unaffiliated” since the 1800s.
- Age is not a strong historical predictor of electoral chances. Since 1960, three Presidents have been in their 40s when inaugurated, four have been in their 50s, and two have been in their 60s. However, the last three have been between the ages of 46 and 54 when they’ve taken office. (Gerald Ford is not counted in these statistics because he was appointed and then not re-elected.)
- Governors are most likely to be elected President. Since 1960, the last previous electoral experience for winning candidates: Governor 4, Vice President 3, Senator 2. Obama was the first Senator elected President since Kennedy in 1960.
- Presidents are most likely to come from the South. Five Presidents have been elected from the South since 1960, two from the Midwest, two from the West, and one from the Northeast. Two of the last three (George H.W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush) were from the South.
Here’s a rundown of the public favorites to grab the Presidency in 2016. Bear in mind that it’s very early in the election season, and a lot can happen.
Hillary Clinton – the former Secretary of State, Senator and First Lady (and primary loser in 2008) is the prohibitive favorite to win both her party’s nomination (8/13) and the Presidency (6/4). Everyone is still waiting for her formal announcement, but she is certainly acting and sounding like a candidate. Her age (68 on Inauguration Day) may work against her with some voters.
Elizabeth Warren – the Massachusetts Senator is a fast-riser in electoral politics. She has only held her post for one year and was an Obama appointee specializing in consumer protection before that. She was a longtime law professor at Harvard, and is seen by progressives as an alternative to the more conservative Clinton, although still a long shot for nomination (9/1) and election (20/1).
Joe Biden – the two-term Vice President is well-liked (although prone to gaffes when speaking, making some see him as somewhat of a buffoon). He’s not viewed by most observers as a viable alternative to Clinton, after spending many years as Obama’s “echo.” He would be also 73 on the day he’d be sworn in which could also work against him. Nomination odds are 16/1 and election odds are 33/1.
Others – those mentioned as unlikely possibilities but still on the boards for punters, are New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, and New York Senator Kirsten Gillebrand (all 20/1 for nomination and 40/1 for election). Many relatively unknown Democratic politicians are even further distant in the field. If you want to bet on a different Clinton, an Obama or a Kennedy: Chelsea Clinton, First Lady Michelle Obama and Congressman Joe Kennedy are all quoted at 100/1 for the nomination, as are actor George Clooney and Senator (and former comedian) Al Franken.
The GOP field is wide open for 2016, meaning there are some terrific punts available if you’re a strong believer that the Democrats are due for an off year after two controversial Obama terms. The ongoing battle between more traditional party stalwarts and the ultra-conservative Tea Party makes this an even more interesting battle, and much harder to handicap.
Marco Rubio – the Florida Senator is seen as an enigma of sorts; at times, he looks and acts Presidential, yet humble and thoughtful. At other times, he makes what many feel are major political missteps. He is Hispanic, and some Republicans believe he could attract crucial Latino votes across the country, yet he’s gone back and forth on the immigration issue. Currently he’s on the liberal side of immigration politics, which angers conservatives and the Tea Party – as does his overall moderate take on most issues. He’s the co-favorite for the nomination at 5/1, and 12/1 for the Presidency.
Chris Christie – the blunt-spoken New Jersey Governor has shown a unique ability to attract votes from both blue collar Democrats and Republicans, while angering both sides a short time later. His weight is also a running joke among American comedians, and may come into play in the minds of voters who are accustomed to “active” Presidents. The GOP doesn’t question his credentials when it comes to winning elections; many do, however, question his loyalty to the party, particularly after his close cooperation with President Obama during Hurricane Sandy. He’s also 5/1 for the nomination and 12/1 for the general election.
Jeb Bush – his credentials as former Florida Governor are secondary to his “family issue” – conventional wisdom holds that he would be hurt greatly by his name, in a campaign to become the third Bush president in less than 30 years. The still-controversial terms of his brother George W. could also present a huge obstacle. Jeb is widely viewed as a “moderate,” which will add to his difficulties because of the continuing split between traditional and Tea Party Republicans. However, he is perhaps the best known of all the GOP hopefuls. Current odds are 6/1 (nomination) and 14/1 (Presidency).
Paul Ryan and Rand Paul – conservatives and Tea Partiers each have their favorites in the race, with former Congressman (and former Republican Vice Presidential nominee) Ryan championed by staunch conservatives, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul the preferred standard-bearer for the Tea Party. Ryan is seen as supporters as a valiant defender of their values as well as a budget policy wonk, but came across as young and unprepared in his vice-presidential run. Paul (the son of former Libertarian Party stalwart Ron Paul) has been the flag-bearer for many of the Tea Party’s most important issues, particularly those involving economics. He has a built-in base (and is favored by more Tea Partiers than fellow Senator and Tea Partier Ted Cruz), but has an “extremist” reputation, as well as several major gaffes (including a statement that he would not support all provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) to overcome. Ryan and Paul are both listed at 8/1 for the nomination; Ryan is 16/1 for the general election and Paul is 20/1.
Looking for a GOP long shot? How about Donald Trump at 50/1 for the Republican nomination, or Congressman David Brat, the Libertarian who defeated Republican House Whip and rising party star Eric Cantor, at 200/1? For a real flier, you can always take actor (and bizarre 2012 GOP nominating convention performer) Clint Eastwood, who’s listed at 500/1 to be elected President.
You can also, of course, place novelty bets on other propositions. Currently, Democrats are favored to win the Presidency at 8/11 while Republicans are 5/4; when it comes to the gender of the next president, somewhat surprisingly, men are favored at 4/7 while women are 11/8.
All odds quoted are from Ladbrokes and change regularly; be sure to check our site sidebar for the very latest – and best – odds available.