Once upon a time, you could only really bet on horse racing, football, the dogs and a few other major sports. Bookies have come a long way since then and you can now place money on just about every sport imaginable, plus many that most people have never heard of. But betting is not just confined to sports and one of the fastest-growing areas of wagering over the past 10 years or so is political betting, with betting on elections making up the biggest part of that.
In that period, betting on TV shows such as The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, as well as things like the Christmas Number 1, Eurovision and the Oscars, have also grown massively. However, the explosion in such specials betting is nothing compared to quite how big election betting has got in these highly polarised times.
The 2020 US Presidential election smashed just about all records going for non-sports betting and perhaps even for all betting, period (as they say in the States!). Hundreds of millions of pounds were matched at betting exchanges as the protracted nature of the election meant some markets were not settled until well after a month after election day.
With some truly huge bets placed on this Presidential race, this was the year when election betting truly took off. All major betting sites and exchanges now offer a whole range of political betting options and wagering on elections can be undertaken for a whole host of reasons, with many different ends in mind.
This is our election betting hub and whether you are new to this type of punting or you are an old hand, we’ll explain all you need to know about this relatively new type of wagering. We’re going to explain more about the major markets you can bet on, things to be aware of before you get involved, strategies you could employ and why people choose to bet on elections in the first place.
In addition, we will look more specifically at the UK election markets and results, as well as how often the favourite wins elections. Polls have come in for a lot of stick in recent times so we will also look at how accurate they are and why they sometimes get things (very) wrong. Finally, we will explain what other areas of politics one can bet on, aside from elections themselves.
Election Betting Markets
Our focus here is elections (though we will look at other areas of political betting later). Even when we confine ourselves purely to election betting, however, there are still many available markets on which to bet.
Of course, by far the most popular, as is the case in many areas of punting, is the outright market: simply put, who will win the election. Even this is not straightforward though and depending on the country of the election on which you are betting, you might have one or more of the following options:
- Next PM/President (or similar)
- Winning Party
- Next Government
- Most Seats
- Winner of Popular Vote
Other markets may also exist but chiefly you are betting on which side will win. As said, the precise nature of this bet will vary according to which nation’s election you are trying to profit from. In the US, for example, by far the biggest and most popular market is the “Next President” option as this is very much the key indicator of who has “won”.
Many countries have a split between the various branches of government. In the US, in particular, this is referred to as the separation of powers and was designed to prevent the sort of tyranny America’s Founding Fathers felt the UK and France suffered due to the monarchy being in control of all three areas.
This separation means that election voting may focus on the power of the executive (essentially the branch responsible for executing the law, so in the US, the president). On the other hand, it could be more centred on the legislature, which in America would be the House of Representatives and the Senate. Equally, it may give both branches a similar weight, whilst last of all, some countries, most obviously the UK, do not separate these parts of the government and have instead a fusion of powers.
In such countries, there is more focus on which party will win the most seats, or claim a majority. That said, increasingly in the UK, the biggest market tends to be the “Next Prime Minister”, partly because this is a more simplistic way of looking at things and has more mass appeal.
A key difference between the Next President (USA) and the Next PM (UK) markets should be noted. Most betting sites include the incumbent President in their market (where they are attempting to claim a second term). In contrast, betting for the next UK PM does not tend to include the sitting Prime Minister.
Other Key Markets
Whilst betting on “who will win” in one form or another is by far the most active election market, there are an ever-expanding array of alternatives too. Once again, these vary from country to country with different electoral processes throwing up different potential bets. Let us look at some of the main options in the UK first.
- Will there be a majority? – for a long time it could be assumed that one party would claim a majority but with the fracturing of traditional alliances, this is no longer the case. Markets may include a named party to claim a majority or a simple yes or no punt on whether any will.
- Seats – how many seats will a specific party claim? Options are banded, so, for example, you might bet on Labour to win 200-220 seats in parliament. Alternatively, you may bet on under or over a specific number of seats, such as the Conservatives to win over or under 329.5 seats.
- Vote share – what percentage of the popular vote will a party claim? Again either offered as a banding or as an over/under option.
- Date of next election – as well as betting on the results of an election, in nations such as the UK with no fixed term, you can also bet on when it will take place. Options are often set out by year.
- Turnout – another market unconcerned with who will win, this lets you profit from predicting what percentage of the eligible vote which cast their ballots.
- Leader voting – not directly an election bet but often highly related to election results, a popular politics punt is to have some money on who the next leader of a named party will be.
- Specials – there are no end of specials when a general election rolls around. Some are more serious, such as those charting the growth, or lack of, parliamentary diversity, for example, the number of women to be elected to the Commons, or the number of BAME MPs. Others are rather more frivolous, such as which seat will declare first, what colour tie a leader might wear, or whether a novelty candidate will do enough to return their deposit.
When it comes to the US politics, the biggest focus by far is on the Presidential election, though in line with the overall growth in political wagering, more and more punters are also taking an interest in Congressional ballots too. Some of the major markets for the former, not already covered by our look at the outrights, include:
- Electoral college votes – in some ways, this is the US equivalent of seat betting but predicting how many EC votes each candidate will garner remains a popular market.
- State betting – state betting includes a huge range of election markets such as how many states a candidate will win overall, how a specific state will vote and when they will declare.
- Candidate betting – the protracted nature of the Presidential elections means there is a long period devoted to deciding who will lead the opposition party and betting on this, and who the VP candidate will be, is a great way to warm up for the main event.
- Specials – once again there is no end to the number of specials, with markets covering whether Presidents will last their full term, speeches they will make, what they will wear, where their first international visit will be and much more.
More To Politics Than Just Elections
As well as the various election-based markets, there are several other key political markets. Some of these are related, whilst others we have already touched upon. Referenda are one obvious area to consider and whilst such direct democracy is relatively rare it is something we may see more of in the years to come.
Unlikely though it is, there are already bookmakers accepting bets on when a second referendum on the UK’s EU membership (i.e. a vote on whether the UK will rejoin) might take place. A similar second vote is being touted on Scottish independence and we could see further devolutionary votes in the regions too.
Looking beyond the UK, we could see other nations hold referenda on EU membership, or we might see a vote on Irish reunification. Some countries hold such plebiscites more frequently than others but you can guarantee that any time there is any form of major national ballot, you will be able to bet on the outcome.
These sorts of political markets operate in very much the same way as the other election bets we have considered. Generally, the outright result is going to attract the most attention from punters but there will usually be secondary markets on things like voter turnout and vote percentage as well.
Another key area concerns the leadership of the various parties, something we have touched upon. Betting on leaders, deputy leaders (or vice-presidents and similar), key ministerial appointments and how long people might last in certain posts are all popular markets.
Last of all, you may see some policy-based markets, although these are far less common. For example, some sites may offer odds on capital punishment being reintroduced (though this would probably require a referendum first), or on drugs such as marijuana being legalised.
Why Is Election Betting Getting So Big?
There are many reasons why betting on politics and elections is more popular than it ever has been. Perhaps first and foremost, it is simply in line with general trends that show larger amounts of cash being wagered on many sports and events.
More specifically though it seems highly likely that the increasing polarisation in modern societies is motivating some people to bet. Various US polls in recent times have shown an alarming number of people view the party they oppose as an existential threat. The same is true to a lesser extent in the UK.
The “other” side winning is no longer simply a bad result but is viewed as a genuine threat to society and democracy. In such an atmosphere, support becomes far more extreme and charged, and with social media central to creating echo chambers where such polarised beliefs only have themselves for company, it is no surprise that supporters on both sides believe that they will win.
Some people may also bet against their beliefs too, either as an emotional or even financial hedge. If you believe one party is going to seriously disadvantage you politically or in monetary terms, then at least some of that risk can be offset by backing them to win.
Such thinking may be responsible for some of the biggest political bets ever made too. Those with the most to win and lose, be they those in finance, tech, industry or any other sector, may make huge bets to protect themselves from election results they believe will harm them. During the 2020 US Presidential election there were reports of seven-figure bets on both sides, including one of $7m on Donald Trump! Whilst we cannot be sure these were motivated by a desire to hedge bets, it certainly remains a distinct possibility.
Lastly, returning to the notion of echo chambers and social media, there is also a growing distrust of intellectuals, science and “experts”. It was back in 2016, seemingly a lifetime ago, that then Justice Secretary Michael Gove said the UK had “had enough of experts”. He was talking about the concept of leaving the EU but his argument can be applied to almost any area of life, from politics to economics and vaccines to immigration.
In the modern world, information is circulated in a way that is very different to how it has traditionally been disseminated. Anyone can now express their opinion or share information and have their voice heard by millions or even billions of people with virtually no regulation or checking of veracity. Given this, many argue we live in a post-truth world where facts are subjective.
If this is truly the case, it should come as little surprise that punters are willing to bet on “their” truth when what they perceive to be a sure thing is being offered at long odds as an outsider. Polls have been wrong many times over the years and this is an area we will return to. Polls, though, are simply another branch of the expert tree and given they have been verifiably wrong many times in recent years, is it any wonder that people are happy to ignore them and ignore long odds to back the side they “know” will win?
Election Betting: Know The Rules
Whatever your motivation for betting on elections and politics in general, as with any market or bet, be it football, horse racing or whether we will have a white Christmas, it is essential that you understand the rules at the very least.
We would strongly advise that you do plenty of research into the area too, especially if you are betting substantial sums. There is so much information publically available nowadays but, of course, this is also available to bookies too, so getting an edge is not easy.
However, if uncovering true political betting value is very hard, knowing what exactly you are betting on is imperative. Knowing, and understanding the rules, therefore, should be a bare minimum. If you are new to betting on elections there are a whole host of things that might catch you out. That is not to say there is anything complicated about betting on politics, just that as with many things in life, making assumptions can be dangerous.
In the 2020 Presidential election, for example, there was a lot of confusion and consternation among many novice election punters about the settlement of the market. Betfair was one of many sites that delayed settlement for weeks after election night as the drawn-out counting process and refusal of Trump to accept defeat meant bookmakers opted to be cautious.
Related to this, when it comes to the way the US results are declared, punters should be aware that sites may have different rules. The American election is very media-led, with outlets “announcing” states based on various factors when, potentially, only a small proportion of the votes have actually been counted.
In general, though we would just say that before you make a bet, ensure you fully understand what you are backing. If the odds look too good to be true, maybe they are and maybe you are missing something. Again, looking at the US election we heard of one punter who backed Joe Biden for a particular number of states without realising that the rules of the market made it clear that the District of Columbia did not count.
They thought they had won their bet but were one “state” short because whilst DC does carry electoral college votes, it is not a state. If you are betting on something new, always check the rules or ask customer support, especially if the odds are much longer than seems sensible – maybe you have misunderstood the market.
Similar scenarios surround a range of markets which may have a date attached – make sure you are aware of that timeframe and factor it into your bet. Time can also be a factor with a market that is not due to settle for many years. For example, you might back against a second EU referendum before 2025 and believe it is good value even at very short odds. However, have you factored into that perceived value that your stake will be tied up for many years?
On a more simple note, it is crucial to understand the clear (but not necessarily obvious, to beginners at least) difference between markets such as the most seats, majority and the next PM, as well as whether or not the next PM or president market includes the incumbent.
Odds Can Fluctuate Wildly
Aside from the fundamentals of what you are betting on and the various rules related to the market, anyone having a wager on an election should be aware that the odds can fluctuate rapidly. In the build-up to election day, odds will be changing all the time. Most movements will be relatively small but certain events, often hugely unpredictable ones, can lead to significant odds changes.
Over the years big shifts in public opinion have occurred in response to wars, major acts of terrorism or big scandals. Both the events themselves and the key players’ responses to them can see huge changes in the political landscape. A leader who was lagging in the polls can suddenly surge into the lead or conversely an outsider can see their odds fall dramatically.
As well as odds being shifted by major events, the other huge factor that can alter the bookies’ prices is new polling data. Of course, polls do not tend to move for no reason but sometimes a surprise poll will crop up and if this is out of the blue and contrary to the prevailing odds, price shifts can be sudden.
In-Play Election Betting
As the election draws nearer and voting begins, the pace of the change in prices often quickens. Most markets with most election betting sites will go in-play and the first major event, in the UK at least, is exit poll data. Exit polls have tended to be accurate and at this stage, we get the first real idea of how things have gone. Once again, if the exit poll is very different from the current prices, those odds will change in a flash.
As with many of the things we have looked at in this piece, the way the odds change will vary from one country to another. One thing that is common to many elections though is the way that odds change as more results are announced. In the UK, for example, constituencies in the North East tend to declare their results first and they also tend to be pro-Labour areas.
A newbie to election betting may decide that a big Labour win in Sunderland, for example, means that the party have a great chance of winning the general election. They may see the traditional party of the left priced at long odds of 5/1 and decide that is great value. However, just a few moments later they may see those odds drift out to 7/1 and be puzzled.
A savvier political punter, however, may see a big win for Labour in Sunderland but realise it is not quite as big as was expected. They may see this as an opportunity to back against Labour (or for the Conservatives) and be thrilled when the odds drift.
As results come in it is crucial to consider not just which party has won a certain seat or state but also by how much they have won and how that compares to the polls and previous elections. Also, the results from certain areas are often more telling than others. Some constituencies or states may well be earmarked as key marginal, swing areas that could go either way.
The results from these areas usually tell us far more about how the odds might move than the results from an area that was always highly likely to vote one way or another. Similarly, some areas are known as bellwethers, which means that, historically, they have been accurate guides to the overall result: whichever party wins them, tends to win overall. In the UK, for example, whichever party has won Dartford in Kent has formed the government.
Demographics can also be key and this is more the case in US elections, where states are broken down into counties. Knowing which counties are traditionally Blue and which are Red can be key to profiting from in-play election betting, whilst being aware of any major demographic changes since the last election also plays a big part in that.
UK Elections: Results And Odds
Let us now look at the results of the general elections in the UK from the most recent one in 2019 right back to the 1940s and the first post-war vote (technically the 1945 general election was just before the end of WWII). The table below shows the key info and gives us a good idea of the broad, long-term landscape of UK elections.
|2017||Theresa May||Conservative (minority government)||-5|
|2010||David Cameron||Conservative (coalition with Liberal Democrats)||78|
|1974||Harold Wilson||Labour (minority government)||-33|
|1955||Sir Anthony Eden||Conservative||60|
|1951||Sir Winston Churchill||Conservative||17|
Election betting has only really been offered on much of a scale since the 2010 election and so we do not have too much in the way of historical odds to go on before that. Indeed, only about £10m was wagered in total on the 2005 election. None the less, we have scoured the various bookmakers and news reports in the build-up to a number of recent elections and the odds and results can be seen in the table below. Note that the odds quoted were taken immediately prior to the elections.
|2019||Conservative majority 1/3||Conservative majority of 80|
|2017||Conservatives most seats 1/16
Conservative majority 1/4
No majority 7/2
|No majority (Conservatives 318 seats v 262 for Labour)|
|2015||Conservatives most seats 1/5
No majority 1/12
Conservative majority 10/1
|Conservative majority of 12|
|2010||Conservatives most seats 1/8
Conservative majority 4/7
No majority 13/8
|No majority (Conservatives 307 v 258 for Labour)|
|2005||Labour most seats 1/12||Labour majority of 66|
It is clear from the table above that punters betting on which party will win the most seats will not typically be rewarded with anything approaching long odds. Only in the tightest of tight elections, with polls indicating two main parties are neck and neck is such a punt going to pay out at odds anywhere near evens.
For this reason, many punters prefer to bet on one of the parties claiming an overall majority. Even this, though, is often an odds-on shot, although anyone backing the Tories in 2015 would have been handsomely rewarded at 10/1.
How Often Does The Favourite Win In Politics?
When it comes to any bet, if the favourite doesn’t win more often than any other individual selection, the bookies are doing something wrong. The favourite won’t always win, or bookmakers would rapidly go out of business, but how do they fare when it comes to election betting?
By and large, elections are more predictable than many other events. A horse race involves multiple animals and any number of unforeseen, highly unpredictable events can alter the outcome. In a football match one terrible mistake, by a player or a referee, can impact the result significantly, whilst even without such an occurrence, the nature of the game means that, usually, either side can win if they play at their best and the other team has an off day.
When we bet on sport (and most events) we try to take into account as much as possible the various factors such as form, ability, the weather, the venue and indeed anything that might impact the result. This information helps our prediction, but election betting is different. We do not have to rely on simply gauging how the parties are performing and if their policies are a success, we can actually ask people how they intend to vote.
As we will see, polls are not always right, for a range of reasons, but their existence gives oddsmakers insight that is just not possible in any other sport or event. Largely due to the process of polling the favourite will win very often in politics.
The table above that shows the odds for the elections between 2005 and 2019 inclusive makes it clear that that the favourite to win most seats did indeed win the most seats on each occasion. That is relatively unsurprising though, given that the odds were no higher than 1/5 for the winning party in each of the five elections considered.
Given that three of those five ballots were expected to be very close, or certainly were very close in the final reckoning, and yet still odds no longer than 1/5 were offered, indicates just how confident the bookies were in their choice of favourite. However, when it comes to betting on who will win a majority, as said, things are trickier.
We can see that in 2017, a Conservative majority was deemed a 1/3 shot. Yet with Theresa May running an appallingly bad campaign and Jeremy Corbyn proving surprisingly popular, it turned out to be a hung parliament, with a bet on no majority paying out at odds of 7/2. In 2015 the surprise had come in the opposite direction, with David Cameron delivering a Conservative majority at 10/1 when a hung parliament was the overwhelming favourite at 1/12!
Moving back a further five years and we again saw the market get things slightly wrong, though this time in a less dramatic fashion. In 2010 political betting sites priced a Conservative majority at just 4/7 but the 13/8 shot, no majority, was where your election money would have been won.
From this analysis we can see that whilst the favourite seems to be a safe bet at short odds in terms of which side will claim the most seats, the picture in terms of gaining an overall majority is far murkier. Of course, a sample size of just five elections is not enough to draw strong conclusions and certainly not sufficient for us to proclaim where the value lies when it comes to election betting.
Whilst there is in fact academic research dating back to bets on the 1997 election, wagering levels back then were insufficient to have much relevance today. Of course, the odds are very heavily influenced by polls and so if the odds are not always right, does that mean polls are also fallible?
Can Polls Be Trusted?
Polls have come in for an awful lot of stick over the past five years or so with some notable occasions when they were certainly far from accurate. Polls are one of the biggest tools used by those betting on elections but if they have often been wrong, can they be trusted at all?
Those who question the work of pollsters point to, among other votes, 2015 UK general election, the 2016 Presidential election in America and the result of the EU referendum that same year. On all three occasions, the polls, generally speaking, got things wrong, very wrong.
However, those that point to this as evidence that polling is worthless forget one key thing. Quite simply, polls have always made mistakes. If polls were 100% accurate then we couldn’t bet on elections and if they were truly, literally, 100% accurate, we wouldn’t even need to vote! But polls, like punters, are seeking to predict the future and this can never be certain.
Polls should, instead, be viewed probabilistically and increasingly that is how they are cast. A poll that says, for example, that Labour has an X% advantage, might have once simply be used to imply that Labour was going to win. Instead, it might now be used to support the view that Labour has, say, a 67% chance of winning, or that pollsters are 95% certain that Labour’s seat total will fall within a given range.
Whilst recent mistakes have garnered a lot of attention, polling errors are as old as polls themselves. Indeed, though not quite a poll, supposed experts were getting election results wrong as long ago as 1848!
The simple fact is that whilst we remember the times pollsters get things wrong, we are less likely to recall the more times they quietly made accurate forecasts. Polls remain a valuable tool when it comes to election betting and it is certainly the case that no serious political punter would step into battle without consulting them.
Why Are Polls Not Always Right?
There are many reasons why polls are an imperfect tool but ultimately it is because it is impossible to predict the future. Pollsters make mistakes and get things wrong for a huge array of reasons and like any forecasters, each time things go wrong, they go back, reassess their models and try to improve.
But the world itself is also changing all the time with new and more complex factors being introduced that make polling more difficult. Social media, electoral interference and highly targeted advertising are three inter-related factors that, for example, are believed to have influenced the EU referendum in 2016.
The issue of how polls keep pace with new technology is not a new one. Indeed, in 1936 the Literary Digest confidently predicted that Alf Landon would win the US Presidential election. You have probably never heard of Landon and that is because Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed a huge landslide victory.
The Literary Digest had conducted a poll via telephone and postcard but hadn’t accounted for the fact that only wealthier voters had access to the relatively new technology of phones. This was compounded by the limitations of postcard polling where only the highly committed would take part.
As well as technological and methodological factors, one of the biggest issues with polling over the years has been how participants have been reluctant to “admit” intending to vote for the candidate that is perceived to be unpopular, or possibly less socially acceptable. This was frequently cited as an issue during the Thatcher years and may also explain the over-performance of Jeremy Corbyn in 2017, Donald Trump in 2016 and the Brexit vote of the same year.
As said, pollsters do try to improve their systems and processes based on new information and past failings. However, with so many variables and unknowns, chaos theory means there will always be some margin of error. That is inescapable but ultimately that is good news for those betting on elections as it does mean punters might be able to spot something the bookies and pollsters have missed.
Election Betting Strategy
In terms of trying to find value bets and landing winners, when it comes to politics punting and betting on elections, as ever, all the usual rules apply. That means try to get as much information as you can, make sure you fully understand the rules of the market and try to make a probabilistic assessment of the likelihood of a given outcome. If the odds compare favourably to your analysis then you have found value and could be on to a winner.
Of course, accurately assessing the probabilities is what pollsters and bookies are both trying to do and, to find value, you have to do a better job than them, which is no mean feat. That said, markets move according to bets placed too, so really you only need to beat the other punters betting on the election in question.
Polls are always likely to be the number one starting point but it is crucial to look at all polls. There are now many major companies and organisations that carry out such research, including Ipsos MORI, ICM and YouGov. Many websites will collate all of these and show averages so it is important not to hear news of a single poll and get too excited as its results may be an outlier.
That said, if you do further research into the methodologies employed by each company and analyse their past success and failures, you may decide that some polls are more reliable than others and this may be one way for you to find an edge. Another is to analyse social media and indeed the mainstream media, although this is fraught with peril.
We have already spoken about online echo chambers and it is a relatively common error for election betting newbies to mistake their bubble and the opinions of the people they mix with for the wider picture. Just because your Twitter or Facebook is filled with people supporting a certain view does not mean that is reflective of society in general.