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Nicolais: What were the odds that Trump would be so beloved by bookies?

Political odds makers have had a field day over the past year – and will not be slowing down soon

After Colorado voters approved sports betting to begin last year, airwaves and drive-time billboards have been inundated with advertisements for sportsbooks.

While I have never been a big fan of sports betting — and the twist at the end of Adam Sandler’s terrific film “Uncut Gems” made me even more queasy about participating — I have found myself drawn to the odds in a different arena.

While betting on politics is still illegal in the United States, it has not stopped plenty of offshore books from raking in cash from predictions over our country’s electoral system. And there are any number of pundits and websites that analyze the odds of a multitude of political events. 

Mario Nicolais

These analysts review not just the pure polling data, but the actual probability of outcomes. For example, the FiveThirtyEight.com website, a daily read for political junkies, kept a regularly updated “forecast” of the presidential election, running tens of thousands of simulations. Each simulation incorporated a host of variables, from new polls to economic data to the effect of breaking news.

What is more, FiveThirtyEight spit out a myriad of different possibilities, from “Trump wins the popular vote” (3 in 100 just before the election) to “Biden wins in a landslide” (29 in 100) or “The election hinges on a recount” (4 in 100). I am by no means an expert on the art of gambling, but that sure seems a lot like what odds-makers do in Las Vegas.

Certainly during 2020, as sports arenas were shuttered and leagues closed, people across the political spectrum began assessing the probability of electoral outcomes with a fervor unseen before in our country. Given half a chance, I am sure that betting establishments could cash in on that obsession in short order.

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In the meantime, putting potential political events into numerical predictions remains one of the most frequent parlor games of media outlets and politicos across the country. For example, last month the Chicago Tribune ran a slideshow putting odds on who President Donald Trump would pardon before leaving office in January. 

The Tribune had a Paul Manafort pardon listed at -400; effectively, a bet of $400 would win $100 if Manafort received a presidential pardon. The odds-on favorite came through on Dec. 23, 2020, when Trump pardoned him along with Roger Stone and Charles Kushner, the father of Trump’s son-in-law.

We are still waiting to see about people Rudy Giuliani (+240), Ghislaine Maxwell (+300), Joe Exotic (+300) and Trump himself (+160). Given the events of Jan. 6, I am sure that the odds on Giuliani and Trump have since shifted significantly.

I have not seen odds on Trump pardoning anyone else — or everyone else — involved in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, but would not be surprised if such a cynical line existed. Someone as wildly erratic and unpredictable as Trump must be great for bookies trying to attract action.

But even as Trump gives way to a far more stable, predictable Biden Administration, there will no doubt be plenty of people taking odds on outcomes over the next four years. Everything from the Senate trial of Trump to passage of Biden’s stimulus package will be boiled down to a fluctuating number.

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As the midterms approach, individual seats and control of both chambers of Congress will become the primary target of speculation. While midterms typically are not kind to the party of a sitting president, variables such as redistricting and the lingering effect of Trump on the GOP will sure make for increased dispute on the outcome.

Even as betting actual money remains illegal, the odds are excellent that people will continue to pay greater attention to these prognostications. You can bet on it.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


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