Throughout the year, I have regularly discussed the historic mismatch between opinion poll estimates and the betting odds. That bizarre differential has arguably never been more extreme than now. At odds of 1.58 on Betfair, Joe Biden’s implied chance equates to 63%. Fivethirtyeight’s projection is 87%. The Economist/Yougov are 91%.
Trump rising in the betting when polls say he should be falling
Normally in elections, a candidate in Biden’s position would be no higher than 1.25 (80%). That sounds generous given the facts but it is important to factor in the trading potential of betting markets, in expectation of volatility. Those odds would shorten with each day the polls show no sign of a turnaround. Yet Biden’s are lengthening.
Back in August, I offered eight explanations for the differential and all still apply. Particularly the celebrity factor. Trump’s fame and ability to dominate the news cycle is nothing like any politician in living memory.
He attracts casual punters into the market. Betfair’s turnover on the US election rose sixfold between 2012 and 2016 and is predicted to double again in 2020. Around three quarters of bets are for Trump. The odds less reflect political indicators than supply and demand.
Memories of 2016 are obviously important. Whilst Trump was much further behind at this point in the race, he did close the gap from here. Clinton was fatally wounded by the sudden re-emergence of the e-mail scandal.
Biden allegations may be driving the gamble
I don't think there is any coincidence that the market moved for Trump after the New York Post's allegations against Hunter Biden. Punters are betting on history repeating itself.
I won’t get into the specifics because there's no evidence to support them. Nobody has verified the e-mails. They come from a hack, which is why Twitter created a storm by blocking the initial NY Post story. They’re now up alongside a warning and in any case, nothing was ever likely to stop Trump media, nor his global army of fans bombarding their friends on WhatsApp.
Hack and smear operation is a replica of 2016
The FBI are already investigating whether this is another Russian intelligence operation, as seems highly likely. Their tactics are amazingly consistent.
Ten years ago in Ukraine, Putin-friendly Viktor Yanukovych destroyed Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko with corruption smears, frequently employing the slogan 'Lock Her Up'. He did actually lock her up. She went on hunger strike and became a hero of the 2014 revolution.
That messaging was credited to Yanukovych's key American advisor Paul Manafort. After his boss fled to Moscow, Manafort became Trump's campaign manager, before being imprisoned for charges resulting from the Mueller investigation. The slogan was resurrected to target Hillary and now, Trump has unleashed it on the Bidens.
Will the same trick work well second time around?
A golden rule of political betting is to never re-fight the last election. Candidates, context, records, narratives, electorates, turnout are never exactly the same. This particular smear campaign is a perfect case in point.
I was writing about Russian interference and ties to Trump before he was elected, but it was a new phenomenon. Bots, trolls and post-truth were not part of the common lexicon. Hacking had never been a known factor in Western elections.
It is one thing for Team Putin to revive slogans from Ukranian politics. Barely anyone noticed. Few Americans or non-Ukranians know such information. It is quite another to repeat the exact same slogan in the same country only four years later.
Talk of Ukraine and Russia unlikely to help Trump
I doubt the subject of Russian interference weighs heavily on many voters' minds but it is hard to be unaware. Mueller and various Congressional reports laid out how they helped Trump with fake news. His campaign's ties to the Kremlin, and lies about those connections, were regularly front page news. An important film about hacking ‘The Perfect Weapon’, detailing Putin's strategy, has just been released on HBO.
Plus it is only nine months since Trump was impeached for matters relating to this exact subject. Bullying the Ukranian government and career US civil servants to dig dirt on Hunter Biden. During that process, up to 55% of voters wanted Trump removed from office. I don't see how reminding voters of that episode, or making Russia central to the campaign, helps Trump.
Of course, his supporters will thrive off these allegations, spreading them far and wide. That is their plan. I doubt it makes any real impact and suspect it merely serves to harden opinion on either side.
Therein lies the core problem with Trump's electoral strategy. To win party nominations requires appealing to the base. He did that well and has built a fanatical movement. But to win elections requires appealing to swing voters and being able to pivot.
It worked in the unique circumstances of 2016, because his opponent was a poor, damaged candidate with similarly negative approval ratings. It helped too that Trump was an outsider and businessman. Some moderates dismissed his extremism as a short-term electoral tactic, and that he would become a pragmatic president.
From day one of his presidency, Trump has doubled down on extreme rhetoric. He never pivots. His lies and conspiracy theories get worse and more extreme. His brand is chaos.
When coronavirus presented an opportunity to position himself as a strong, unifying, competent leader - a situation many other leaders have exploited to positive effect - he ignored it. Despite every indication that it hurts him, Trump continues to politicise the virus, mask-wearing, a vaccine. His rallies are billed as ‘super-spreaders’.
These tactics have made him a folk hero to a minority and hate-figure to a majority. Hence why his approvals and vote share versus Biden are so consistent, entrenched in the low-forties. Everything we see in polls suggests this unique episode in history will end in a humiliating landslide defeat.