While voters throughout the country were glued to their TVs and reflexively refreshing news and political sites on Tuesday night, a few of the cannier ones were paying more attention to something else. The betting odds.
You cannot bet legally on political races in the United States, but in Britain and elsewhere there is a thriving market as bettors look to make money on whether Candidate A or Candidate B wins a big race.
Many, many bettors are following the race for the presidency between Donald Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. They are consuming a wide variety of data, and their collective wisdom, as reflected in where they put their money, can move the betting lines quickly. As a result, betting odds can be a canary in a coal mine, catching on to a surge by one candidate before some pundits even notice.
On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, political bettors, at least those in jurisdictions where they could bet legally, went on a wild ride.
Going into election night, bookmakers in places like Britain had Biden as a big favorite — to win $1, you needed to wager $2. Essentially this meant that Biden was considered to have about a 66 percent chance to win.
The bettors and bookmakers who establish these lines were more bullish on Trump’s chances than many statistical sites: Fivethirtyeight.com gave Biden an 89 percent chance of winning, and The Economist went as far as 97 percent before Election Day.
“Trump had been seen as an underdog since May,” said Pete Watt, the public relations manager at Oddschecker, an odds comparison site that does not take bets itself. “But in no case did bettors desert him. There were always more bets on the president, but the larger bets came in on Biden.”
Last week, an unidentified bettor wagered a million pounds, or about $1.3 million, on Biden on Betfair. If successful, the bet would return the million, plus 540,000 pounds more (about $700,000 more).
But Biden’s favoritism did not hold on Tuesday night. The first blow was from Florida, a state where he was expected to be more competitive. As it became clear that Trump was leading there, bettors shifted toward the president, and his chance of winning increased from 35 percent to 44 percent by 9 p.m., Eastern time, Oddschecker reported, based on data on major betting sites in the United Kingdom that also take sports bets. Watt said that 93 percent of bets at one bookmaker, Paddy Power, were on Trump at about 9:30 p.m.
Events were moving quickly. “The markets were twitching constantly,” Watt said. By 10 p.m., Trump was the favorite, with a 56 percent chance of winning. By 11, he was up to 69 percent.
Those odds are based on the best prices available. But, of course, some bookmakers vary in one direction or another, based in part on the bets they have accepted. The rush to Trump was so great that at one point a few bookies were offering odds as long as 6-1 or 7-1 to Biden bettors, meaning their $1 bet would return $6 or $7. The odds implied that Trump had as much as an 85 percent chance of winning.
After midnight, bettors seemed to have settled that Trump’s re-election was at least more likely than not.
But overnight, things shifted back to Biden. “He saw some success in the likes of Georgia, which was definitely a surprise, and Arizona,” Watt said. “By 5:30 a.m., Biden was reinstalled as the front-runner.”
And though Election Day is over, betting will continue until it is clear who won, however long that takes. As of early Wednesday morning, betting markets had Trump around 25 to 30 percent to win. A bit lower than 24 hours before, but still a significant chance.
While many voters have strong passions about their candidate, bettors who want to maximize their return have to leave those opinions aside and bet with their heads, not their hearts. A wise wagerer who bet on Trump when he was a 3-1 underdog, and also bet on Biden at 5-1 or more at his low point at 10 p.m. or so, will be looking at making some good money no matter who wins.