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Want to Know Who Will Win the 2016 Presidential Election? Check the Betting Markets

Gambling on election outcomes is as old as the practice of representative government itself, according to Old Dominion University political scientist Joshua Zingher.

Zingher said gambling markets have frequently been a better predictor than public opinion polls and he expects that to be the case with the outcome of the 2016 presidential election as well.

Historians have established the existence of election betting markets as far back as the 15th century - apparently, betting on who would become the next pope was of particular interest to medieval Italians - and there is even evidence that suggests Greeks were betting on the outcome of city state elections thousands of years ago, Zingher said.

In the modern context, no political event attracts the attention of gamblers like a U.S. presidential election. While it is illegal in the United States, gambling on U.S. presidential elections is big business overseas.

"Over $1.5 billion were wagered on the outcome of the 2012 election, which made it the most heavily gambled-upon event in human history," Zingher said. "Betting on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election is expected to surpass this number."

As a political scientist, Zingher said he finds political betting markets incredibly interesting for several reasons, including their surprising accuracy.

"One reason why the behavior of gamblers is so informative is because election-betting markets are quite accurate in predicting the winner," he said. "What is even more interesting is that election-betting markets have been accurately predicting the winner well before the existence of scientific public opinion polling."

Betting markets are able to do that because they reflect the collective wisdom of crowds and are updated in real time.

Want to see who really won a debate or how important the public actually thinks a piece of breaking news is? Check the betting markets - odds change every couple of minutes.

"This year, the betting lines actually moved significantly during the course of the 90-minute debates," Zingher said. "Money comes in on candidates in response to events as they happen, so the odds are consistently in flux."

So, what do the betting markets have to say about the likely outcome of the 2016 presidential election?

According to Zingher, bookmakers currently have Democrat Hillary Clinton sitting as a roughly 5:1 favorite over Republican Donald Trump, which translates to an 83 percent chance of Clinton winning the election.

"Bettors have been skeptical of Trump's chances even when the national polls showed a close race," he said. "Simply put, bettors were doubtful of Trump's ability to avoid major missteps over the course of the campaign and it appears these doubts were well founded."

To learn more, check out the Oct. 30 episode of the public radio program "With Good Reason," which featured Zingher and focused on the 2016 presidential election.

He appeared with Quentin Kidd, of Christopher Newport University; and Rosalyn Cooperman, of the University of Mary Washington on the program entitled "The Great Divide," which aired on WHRV-FM 89.5 in Hampton Roads.

The show is also broadcast in different timeslots in more than 50 public radio stations from coast to coast. Show times are posted on the "With Good Reason" website and audio files of the full program and its companion news feature are posted the week of the show.

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