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USA '08 If you want to know who is going to win the US presidential elections today (or to be precise, in the early hours of tomorrow morning), a quick look at the bookmakers' odds might be more informative than the latest polls.

Depending on which polling organisation you believe, Obama’s lead is narrowing to as little as four per cent - or widening out to 11 per cent. In fact, the spread in pollster numbers is likely to be an issue after the election. A landmark result for pollsters took place in 1948, when a number of polling organisations called the Presidential election for Dewey – as opposed to the eventual winner, Harry S Truman - some by a wide margin.

The issue then was the use of telephone polling. Republicans were far more likely to own phones than Democrats, so use of this method to collect voting intention introduced a significant anti-Democrat skew to the figures. This time round, the hot issue is whether polling organisations should include mobile phone numbers in their surveys.

Evidence is mounting that surveys that exclude mobiles suggest a race that is close, with Barack Obama ahead by a small margin, whilst those that include mobile phones are starting to point toward an Obama landslide.

Which brings us back to betting. In true capitalist fashion, betting on the outcome of a political event introduces market forces to the process of prediction. A great many political insiders place bets because they are close to the campaigns and, by definition, believe they have insider knowledge of the subject. So the betting odds on any political event are a direct translation of insider knowledge into financial fact.

Persistent rumour within the Liberal Party has it that Liberal MP Clement Freud won not only a seat in the Ely by-election of 1973, but also a significant cash amount from a bet he placed on himself at the start of the campaign.

No matter how loyal a supporter you are of a candidate, the chances are that you are unlikely to put your money on them if your gut feeling is that they will lose. You might even be prepared to put money on a rival candidate, on the grounds that even if you feel bad about losing, at least you will make money from your loss.

When it comes to political betting there is one site that now stands head and shoulders above all the rest.

The cryptically-named Political Betting provides insight and analysis of major political events, combining analysis of the latest polling trends, with how these may impact on punters’ decisions when it comes to betting. Their co-sponsor – Best Betting - is a good place to go for those who would like to place money on the outcome, and find that the major bookmaking chains are not well suited to the needs of political gamblers.

This week, the big money is changing hands on the US Elections – both Presidential and Congress – but political pollsters and bookies are also interested in the outcome of the New Zealand general election (Saturday) and the Glenrothes by-election (this Thursday).

In case you’re wondering, John Key’s National Party is favourite to oust the current incumbent, Helen Clark, in New Zealand, and the SNP are still favourite to take Glenrothes, but only just. Betting reflects the recent revival of Gordon Brown in the opinion polls, with the margin between Labour and SNP shrinking drastically over the last seven days.

Meanwhile, anyone looking for a last minute bet on the American Presidential race can just about obtain highly unspectacular odds of 1/25 on Barack Obama to win. That is, for every £100 you put on Obama, you would get back the princely sum of £104. An overall Democratic victory is not much better, with odds of 1/20 or 7/100 being about the best now available.

More interesting are bets on the size of the eventual majority in the electoral college. Odds have shifted drastically over the last couple of days, with Obama taking 370 or more of the 538 seats available now the favourite outcome. We shall shortly find out whether betting is a more accurate means of predicting outcomes.

There are clearly drawbacks. If political betting ever came to be reported on seriously by political pundits, it is not inconceivable that some operators would be tempted to manipulate the odds by placing large amounts on their own party.

Owner of the Political Betting website Mike Smithson appears to be one of those rare individuals who consistently makes serious money out of the bookmakers. But then, he also appears to be a professional gambler who plays the political game as seriously as any professional investor plays the stockmarket.

For the rest of us, who usually restrict our betting to £10 each way on the Grand National, this is a different and interesting way to have a flutter. ®

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

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