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From a betting perspective the dangers of “fighting the last war”

May 11th, 2020

On Boxing Day last year, a fortnight after the Tories won an 80 seat majority, a delighted family friend declared over lunch “I couldn’t believe the result. Politics has been so unpredictable, and no-one thought Boris would win big!

He was wrong, but not completely. Despite double-digit poll leads the media had speculated about hung parliaments a hell of a lot and the betting markets had the Tories as surprisingly modest favourites. Longer than 1/2 on a majority of any size was available on election day itself. The real question is: Why didn’t everyone think Boris would win big?

I suspect this: The memory of 2017 loomed too large. Two years prior Theresa May had lost a huge poll lead over a matter of weeks, and an apparently certain landslide had turned into a hung parliament. Even though that was an exceptional campaign, the media and the punters and my family friend couldn’t remember all the elections where big leads had led to big wins. 

Everything was filtered through the most recent experience, leading many to deny the obvious favourite even though the evidence was right in front of them. The same mistake is being made now in America.

Joe Biden has a national poll lead of several percent over Donald Trump. His lead in swing states is even better judging by recent polling. Trump’s ratings on handling the coronavirus pandemic are moderate at best. Yet polls show most people think Trump will be re-elected, and the betting markets show him as mild favourite. Why? Because Hillary Clinton had these leads and lost.

I would suggest we are blinding ourselves the same way many did in the UK last year. 2016 was an unusual election in the US. Trump won narrowly and was frankly lucky to barely win several key states. Hillary Clinton suffered from some unusual difficulties, not least a whiff of sexism against her and the timing of the Comey letter. There were unusually prominent third party candidates.

In short: 2016 was the exception, not the rule. We should treat it accordingly. Much has been made on Twitter of how Clinton had similar or larger leads in April/May 2016 than Biden has now. But most candidates with her leads go on to win.

Furthermore, Biden’s position is arguably stronger than Clinton’s was at this stage. The race appears far less volatile. Whereas Clinton’s lead over Trump shrank to near zero repeatedly over 2016 Biden’s lead has been much more steady. His favourables are better than hers at the same stage, and views on Trump are much more entrenched now. In 2016 Trump won voters who disliked both candidates by a 17% margin, but they now give Biden a 32% lead.

The race isn’t over. Trump is a strong campaigner, and his supporters are loyal. But he didn’t win in 2016 with only his base. Biden should be considered a solid favourite, not a mild underdog. 2016 is the latest precedent, but we shouldn’t treat it like the only one.

Pip Moss

Pip Moss posts on Political Betting as Quincel. You can follow him on Twitter at @PipsFunFacts