Can the political betting markets be rigged?

The economic mysteries of daily life.
July 7 2007 7:33 AM

Hillary's Odds

Can you rig the political betting markets?

"Put your money where your mouth is."

The old taunt reflects a deep economic principle: Talk is cheap, but if someone is willing to risk money, it means they're serious. Put the principle into action and you realize that electoral forecasters should pay as much attention to the betting odds as to the opinion polls. (Check out Slate's Political Futures, which tracks all the political betting markets in real time.) When money is on the line, informed people, perhaps including insiders, have an incentive to turn their knowledge into cash by making big bets. In the process they make the odds more accurate. And of course, there are several reasons to lie to pollsters, but no reasons to make a money-losing bet.

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Or are there? Imagine you're a candidate in the presidential primaries. One of the big selling points in a primary is electability: "If you choose me, I'll beat the other party's candidate." It might be worth placing a few money-losing bets if they made you look electable.

This may be more than a hypothetical scenario. Economists Justin Wolfers and Eric Zitzewitz have pointed out that Hillary Clinton's chances of becoming president, as predicted by one betting market, InTrade, started to climb dramatically mid-May, topping 40 percent after months of fluctuating between 20 percent and 30 percent. Her odds of winning the Democratic nomination stayed around 50 percent, implying that if nominated, her chance of then winning the presidency would be about 80 percent. You can't get much more electable than that.

So, is someone in Hillary's camp trying to boost her chances by manipulating the market into a self-fulfilling prophecy? Or is it a rival candidate trying to make her look like a manipulator?

Or neither? It's almost impossible to prove that manipulation is taking place, although if it's clumsy, people tend to notice. In October 2004, InTrade (whose political markets then operated under the name TradeSports) saw George Bush's probability of re-election slump from 54 percent to 10 percent in three minutes when bets were placed in the small hours of the morning. Either someone was drunk, or a political hack made a crass attempt to change the odds.

But it's hard to manipulate markets for long. In the 2004 case, Bush's re-election probability climbed back to 54 percent within minutes as profit-seeking traders spotted the free money. "When I heard about it, I started checking the betting markets in the early hours a lot more closely," says Justin Wolfers. Robin Hanson and Ryan Oprea, economists at George Mason University, argue that manipulators can actually increase the accuracy of prediction in markets: By making big, unprofitable bets, they are effectively subsidizing the market and paying other traders to pay attention.

Economic historian Paul Rhode and economist Koleman Strumpf point out that the speculative attack on Bush—if that is what it was—required an investment of about $20,000, small change by the standards of a modern presidential-election campaign.

But if history is any guide, manipulation will not be so cheap in future. Rhode and Strumpf report that political betting markets were once far larger. In 1916, more than $160 million in today's money was wagered on the contest between Woodrow Wilson and Charles Evans Hughes. Now that political betting is back in vogue, volumes are growing rapidly. Even if future hacks do see some advantage in trying to skew the odds of future elections, it may cost them dearly to try.

Tim Harford is a Financial Times columnist. His latest book, The Logic of Life, will be published in paperback on Feb. 10.

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