With sport shut down for months, punters have turned in unprecedented numbers to the forthcoming US presidential poll for their thrills.
Paddy Power says its market is currently four times the size that it was at this point last time around, while the betting exchange run by sister company Betfair has seen more than double the activity compared with 2016.
Some £41.8m had been traded on the exchange's presidential market as of 30 June, compared with £16.8m at the same stage in the race during the previous election. Of that figure, bets on Donald Trump accounted for £27.5m, compared with just £9.5m for his Democratic challenger Joe Biden. The total across all US election markets: £80m.
Now Betfair is an exchange, where punters set the odds and can either back their man or play bookmaker by “laying” the bets of others. The winner (in either case) pays commission. So the uptick in interest represents good news for Betfair at a time when the sporting world has been somnolent.
Traditional bookies have good cause to feel a little more nervous. Paddy Power says Trump accounts for 80 per cent of its bets by number and 70 per cent of the money wagered (suggesting that a lot of the smaller punters are still hitching themselves to his rickety wagon). It’ll be a case of “go Joe” on the bookmakers' side of the business, even if big-money punters back the Democrat heavily at odds on in the run-up to polling day, as they are wont to do with odds-on favourites (always assuming he remains so). Much of the rest of the world will also be cheering for the bookies to score a victory, which is not a terribly common occurrence.
The polling numbers certainly favour that outcome: Biden’s lead has hit as much as 14 points.
Punters on this side of the pond – US sports betting might have been legalised in several states, but the same is not true of politics – are more hesitant. Biden is currently best priced as 8/13 favourite while Trump can be backed at 7/4.
The odds today remind me of how they looked a little closer to the last US election, when they similarly favoured Hillary Clinton. Her lead in the polls, however, was much less pronounced. Smaller-staking bettors also went for Trump then, just as they have this time.
It is the pandemic, and the president’s poor handling of it, that have caused his odds to lengthen. "The Donald" was a solid 4/7 favourite on 19 January, per Oddschecker, just prior to the first coronavirus case being registered in Washington DC. At that time, Biden was a rank outsider.
Both the odds and the polls initially showed Trump benefiting from the pandemic, which afforded him visibility and the chance to play national leader at a time of trial. Unfortunately, his natural tendencies asserted themselves as his administration’s fumbling efforts to contain the outbreak became more and more obvious. A mixture of bragging, blustering, and the picking of fights were the exact opposite of what was required – and Biden started to gain ground. Rapidly.
The process got started early in March when Biden turned around a decidedly shaky start to establish a firm grip on the Democratic primaries. Trump nonetheless remained the punters’ narrow favourite, that is until the end of May when a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd. The two candidates crossed over at the end of that month with Black Lives Matter protests in full swing.
Biden was an odds-on shot with Betfair by 3 June. Since then, his odds have contracted further, although it should be stressed again that punters don’t seem minded to get as far ahead of themselves as the polls.
Despite Trump’s series of missteps and his complete inability to show anything resembling empathy or to read the mood of the nation he leads, this is still very a much a live betting heat. In fact, the president's polling numbers have been so bad they’ve even sparked speculation that Trump may thrown in the towel (or be asked to by "Republican operatives"). These rumblings have even been reported by Fox Business, normally a safe space for the embattled president.
This all seems highly unlikely, but the lesson of recent history is that you should always expect the unexpected.
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