Legend has is it that when a reporter asked renowned 20th-Century thief Willie Sutton why he robbed banks, Sutton shot back, “Because that’s where the money is.” In his autobiography, Sutton agreed it was a great and perhaps obvious answer, but he denied having actually said it.
When it comes to betting, a similar line of thought holds true: you’ve got to go to places where you can make the wagers – and in short, the money. In the case of betting politics, that place is not the United States. Even in this new era of expanded legal betting, you can still only wager on sports.
But that’s not the case elsewhere, particularly in the United Kingdom, where betting on politics is huge sport, if you will. That’s why, on Thursday night, Robert Barnes hopped aboard an airplane in Las Vegas for a nonstop flight to London.
Barnes told Covers that he’s set to get down – in a big way – on the midterm elections taking place Tuesday in the U.S. And the play he likes most is one that goes against all the conventional wisdom.
“I’m definitely betting that the House stays GOP. That’ll be the biggest bet,” said Barnes, a trial lawyer who spends two-thirds of his time practicing law, and the other one-third investing, predominantly in betting-oriented markets. “My second-biggest bet is on the Senate. My view is Republicans will add at least two seats. And these are six-figure wagers.”
Republicans are expected to keep the Senate majority but potentially get rolled in the House, as that body is widely expected to flip to the Democrats. FiveThirtyEight.com, the popular forecasting website of Nate Silver, predicts a landslide 85 percent chance that Democrats take the House.
Barnes is firmly on the opposite side of that prediction.
“I would set odds at a 65 percent chance of a GOP House,” Barnes said.
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So what accounts for the large discrepancy between what the analytics and numerous other political outlets think, and what Barnes believes is a bet so good, he’s traveling 5,000 miles to make it? Barnes said two key reasons are political analytics not being of a high enough quality, and that erratic polling reinforces biases.
“There’s a problem with polling around the world, particularly in America,” Barnes said. “The response rate is so low, and landlines are no longer reliable means to reach people. We’re in an experimental polling age. I became obsessed with polling in the 2016 election, diving into the polls. The polling problems that were present in 2016 still exist in 2018, and in fact, they’re worse. That’s enhanced and increased the odds being in favor of the Democrats.”
That, in a nutshell, is why Barnes is willing to bank on the aforementioned propositions. In fact, he says legitimate skin in the game makes one more keenly aware of the probabilities, and that pollsters and pundits don’t have that awareness – what he termed “motivated reasoning.” Political forecasters and the media too often allow their motivations to influence their reasoning.
“If you want to change your reasoning, change your motivation. Political betting does that better than anything,” Barnes said. “What’s fascinating is that none of these people in the political data journalist space would last six months in Vegas in a sports betting market. They’re like the kids who come out here for March Madness.
“If you’re not willing to put your money where your mouth is, or even make just a reputational bet for no money, then you don’t really have confidence in your opinion. Put money out there. That’s not done in the entire media punditry. But the upside is it creates massive, wonderful opportunities for people like myself.”
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Those opportunities led to plenty of political cashouts. Barnes scored a large six-figure win on Donald Trump in 2016, traveling to Ireland to wager just before the election. And he’s wagered and won on the other side of the aisle as well, including last year with the British Labour Party and in 2012 with President Barack Obama’s re-election.
Now, he’s walking London’s streets to make a major wager on the GOP retaining the House, while back home in the States, the polling and pundit class says that’s extremely unlikely. As such, Barnes said proper odds of Republicans keeping the majority should be 5/1 or 6/1.
But the British bookies, burned on a couple of occasions in these turbulent political times, aren’t offering odds that are in line with the American forecasting models.
“The bookies are holding course at 3/2, occasionally going to +180 or +200. They’re scared because of the Trump factor,” Barnes said.
At Paddy Power, which is among the shops Barnes intends to frequent prior to Election Day, the odds are just below 2/1.
“We currently have the Republicans at 13/8 (38.1 percent probability) of holding a majority of seats after the election,” Paddy Power political trader David Fleming told Covers. “Things have been trending negatively for the Republicans here. At the start of October, the price stood at 5/4 (44.44 percent probability). At this late stage, it’s hard to see them reversing the momentum, and we see a Democrat-controlled House after the election.”
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Barnes is fine with such analysis, stating he hopes American forecasting operations and media outlets keep churning out reports stating likewise, to bolster his plus-money odds.
“British bookies depend heavily on American media to determine odds. All the big-money gamblers over there follow Nate Silver religiously,” he said.
As for Barnes’ second major wager, he stands to have a higher profit margin betting on the GOP to add two Senate seats.
“To gain two seats exactly in the Senate is 5/1. To gain two or more is 5/4,” Fleming said. “Interestingly, the negative Republican trend in the House has not been repeated in the Senate. In fact, it has been the opposite. We make them 1/5 (83.33 percent probability) to hold the majority, from 4/7 (63.64 percent probability) a month ago.”
Regardless of the odds, Barnes will get his bets down. And he’s hoping for an extended European stay, as was the case in 2016.
“If I win, it usually takes a week or two to clear the funds. So if it goes well, maybe I’ll go hang out in Greece or Paris,” Barnes said. “If it doesn’t go well, I’ll be back much quicker!”
Patrick Everson is a Las Vegas-based senior writer for Covers. Follow him on Twitter: @Covers_Vegas.