More entertaining than the Republicans?

Photographer: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The U.S. Should Get Legalized Election Betting

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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At a hastily called rally at an industrial site in Houston, Ted Cruz made it clear to about 1,000 supporters that he's making a last stand in his home state, a last-ditch attempt to defend a "besieged" conservative base against its attackers. But he also made it clear that he's busy calculating the odds.

The more I watch the Republican contest, the more I am convinced that this party's voters want to treat it as a pure sporting spectacle, a kind of circus wrestling tournament. Regardless of whether he becomes president, Donald Trump has already proved that it's a show sport like any other, although perhaps with higher stakes. All that's missing is the official recognition of what's going on as a version of WWE wrestling.

If that's how it's going to be, there's every reason to legalize betting on election outcomes in the U.S. It makes no sense that the book for the event is made overseas. Betfair, where about $2.5 million is riding on the outcome of the Republican primary, is U.K.-based, and so are most of the other political markets. Betting on elections is legal in the U.K., where elections are less like show sports: Much of the electioneering occurs in constituencies, and national advertising is strictly regulated. In the U.S., one can build election betting strategies purely on statistics and other factors that have nothing to do with the issues at stake.  

The contest for the Republican nomination is now a battle between three candidates who embody three conflicting qualities: Conservative values (Cruz), plain-spokenness (Donald Trump) and the potentially broad appeal known as electability (Marco Rubio). At least, that's how Elizabeth Simas, a political scientist at the University of Houston, frames it based on polls. Two-thirds of this formula -- Trump's showbiz sincerity and the strategic support of Rubio because he's "electable" -- are pure sports.

Cruz, ostensibly, doesn't like this. "We cannot be taken in by P.T. Barnum," he told his followers at the rally in a barely veiled reference to Trump. "The time of the clowns and the acrobats and the dancing bears has passed. The time has come for Texans to stand together."

Some of his supporters feel that way, too. Kirby Cantalamessa, a 25-year-old Houston baseball coach holding a Ted Cruz sign at the rally, knows about sports. But he says he doesn't support Cruz because the senator can win. "I want a president who will put the country back on the right track," he said. "Trump gets the embittered voters, and whenever emotion prevails, logic goes out the window." 

Yet Cruz is obviously doing the math, not just standing on values and trying to get his message across. Texas, he told his supporters, is "the crown jewel of Super Tuesday," and Super Tuesday is "the central, most important day of this election." 

Trump has won 81 out of the 129 delegates that the first four states are sending to the Republican National Convention in July. A further 595 are in play on March 1, 155 of them -- by far the most -- in Texas. If Cruz adds them to the 17 he's got so far, he stands a chance. If he doesn't, his cause may well be lost. To get all the Texas delegates, he needs to win a majority on Super Tuesday. The latest Emerson college poll only gives him a 1 percent advantage.

Martin Harry, a 54-year-old Austin lawyer, told me he shared Cruz's rigid stance on the constitution; one would think he would simply cast his vote to express his support for the senator's values, but he can't help calculating the odds. "As long as he wins Texas and Rubio loses Florida, he remains close," Harry said of Cruz. "If Cruz and Trump go head to head, Cruz will win."

Though polls show Rubio coming in third in Florida, his home state; that's a lot of "ifs." I've made such calculations many times as a soccer fan, hoping against hope Team Russia might get into the final stage of a World Cup: If team A loses to team B by enough goals and team C ties team D, we might stand a chance. Winning teams' fans are spared the agony.

Betfair now gives Trump a 69 percent chance of winning the nomination. Here's how Robert Barnes, a former political consultant who lives in Las Vegas and, among other things, advises people on playing the political markets, laid out his most recent recommendation on Trump in an email to me:

Hold for now; he may drop to 65 or so, as the media will look for any story coming out of the debates to slam Trump, which will shake up the markets, and then I will recommend buy.

If this approach were made official, the candidates wouldn't even need names; they could come out in costume and do their thing and TV audiences would judge their prowess. If this is unworthy of the genuine democratic process I have seen in Iowa and New Hampshire, where people made honest attempts to understand the platforms and find out more about the candidates' records, so is the current gladiatorial contest in which values are an afterthought and statistics rule. 

The U.S. government should at least recognize that it's enough of a sport to bet on.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net