History tells us that during the Renaissance, Roman bookmakers would offer punters odds whenever a new pope was being elected, until one pontiff outlawed the practice on pain of excommunication. Betting on political contests has remained something of a rarity ever since, but it has made a huge comeback with the boom in online and mobile gaming outlets.
These days, even the mighty Wall Street Journal may run a story investigating betting on politics, and trying to determine whether bookies’ odds are better predictors of results than traditional polls. But why the sudden increase in political betting? There are three factors that immediately spring to mind.
You Can Bet On Anything Now
Online and mobile betting options now include sports books, casinos and slots, Bingo and lotteries, and even the outcome of Reality TV shows. You can take a punt on anything, from mega-million progressive slots, to the winner of the Kentucky Derby, to who will win the next season of Survivor.
It is thus no surprise that people will also bet on political outcomes; if there is going to be a winner and a loser, somebody will be offering odds on who will finish where. With betting fast and easy online, of course people will want to squeeze more entertainment out of elections. Otherwise, the only upside of the whole process is participatory democracy. Which might be important, but it’s far from exciting.
It’s An Emotional Connection
Claims that odds and betting trends related to political contests are better predictors of the outcomes than traditional polling have proved controversial. In fact, evidence seems to show that betting on politics is more prone to predicting a wrong result than the polls are – this was certainly the case for Clinton vs Trump in the 2016 US presidential election.
The primary reason for this may be that people betting on politics are really betting on the emotional connection that they feel toward a candidate. They are not assessing polls or the candidate’s chances of winning rationally; they are betting on the candidate to win because the punter wants them to win… It’s almost like a mystical attempt to bargain for affirmation; to “buy the right result”.
It’s One Way To Make Politicians Deliver
In the UK, where high street betting shops have long offered both serious and cheeky bets on political events, many citizens have an attitude of weary cynicism towards politics in general and the limits of what elections can deliver. This is not an entirely unreasonable attitude, and it can also be found in the US and other parts of the world.
So, the logic goes, if politicians are likely to be of little benefit to the average punter anyway, why not make at least something worthwhile out of every election? This rationale of “getting a bit of your own back” is one of the primary drivers of political betting: if you don’t have enough voter support to avert a disaster like a Brexit or a Trump presidency, you can at least make some money out of them.