What do you do with a drunken sailor?

Notes from the political sidelines.
Oct. 29 2006 11:59 PM

What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?

With this election sinking fast, Republicans debate how not to lose the next one.

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Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006

You Bet: Not long ago, Bill Frist rushed to the Senate floor with legislation to curb an Internet practice that "threatens our families by bringing addictive behavior right into our living rooms." No, the Senate majority leader wasn't talking about curbing IMs from drunken sexual predators in Congress. He was pushing through a bill to ban Internet gambling.

Just as Jacob Weisberg anticipated in July, Congress passed and the president signed a law making it a crime to bet online. Frist tucked the measure onto a port-security bill as a late-night rider, hoping it would boost his presidential stock with Christian conservatives. Now Republicans will have to turn to Ralph Reed and Bill Bennett if they want to field a pro-God, pro-gambling ticket.

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After Bush signed the bill earlier this month, the online gaming giants shut down their American operations almost overnight. Sportingbet Plc, a British company, took a $391 million loss and sold its U.S. arm for $1.

Other companies are betting the law won't stick. Trade Exchange Network, an Irish firm that runs Tradesports.com and Intrade.com, continues to welcome American customers. But here's the real irony: At the same time the Republican Congress is trying to throw them out of the American market, the briskest business at Tradesports and Intrade is taking bets on whether Americans will throw out the Republican Congress.

Political futures markets are nothing new. For years, they've been a staple of the caucuses in Iowa, where presidential candidates are just pork bellies by other means. But in the run-up to this year's midterms, Intrade futures prices are everywhere. RealClearPolitics offers "Live Intrade Quotes" alongside its polling summaries. HuffingtonPost now posts them on the front page in a snazzy, multicolored bar graph.

The HuffPo graphics won't help with Tradesports/Intrade's defense. The headline shouts "Midterm Betting Odds," and the caption adds, "Odds based on people betting real money on the Tradesports website."

Is betting real money on the midterms a form of online gambling? If so, perhaps Congress should ban online campaign contributions as well.

At the moment, the Intrade market is far less bullish (and more Rovish) on Democrats' chances of recapturing the Senate than Slate's "Election Scorecard." In the House, the Intrade over-and-under looks to be about 20 seats—about 10 fewer seats than Kausfiles' favorite, Majority Watch.

With each new set of polls and each won-or-lost news cycle, the Intrade futures market bobs up and down. Yesterday, SUSA and Rasmussen polls sparked a GOP Senate futures rally. The latest race revelations from George Allen's youth should send them back down today.

If you don't feel like betting on politics, Intrade lets you bet on more trivial matters—like survival. So far, nobody's buying futures contracts on a U.S. military strike against North Korea. But trading volume is high for bets that the United States or Israel will launch a military strike against Iran in the next six months. The latest odds: 1 in 10.

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