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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

Sunday Spin: Political gambling? You betcha

OLYMPIA –– In years gone by, when reporters kept pints of whiskey in their bottom desk drawers and editors wielded long pencils sharpened to resemble hypodermic needles, it was common in newsrooms to bet on elections.

Truth be told, it was common in newsrooms to bet on almost anything, from how much snow would fall in a storm to when the jury in a murder case would come back. But elections were often the top source for wagering, better even than football because, unlike sports, the ability to guess who would win elections was rarely tied to one’s knowledge of politics.

Sometimes a new colleague – usually fresh out of Journalism School where they fill would-be reporters’ malleable minds with extraneous things like civic duty and ethics – would recoil in horror at something so crass as betting on elections. My standard reply was that if the public could bet on elections they’d pay far more attention and maybe more would actually cast ballots in hopes of affecting the outcome in their favor. So make your picks, I’d say, and cough up your buck.

The latest advances in online wagering make those old election pools look like a rotary dial phone next to an iPhone 6s. One website, PredictIt, provides opportunities for a person to bet on which Republican will be the next to drop out of the presidential race, whether Vice President Joe Biden will get in, who will get the biggest bump in the polls from Wednesday’s debate, whether Congress’s approval rating will top 15 percent by Friday or even whether sanctuary cities will lose federal funding.

In a sense, the betting odds represent the “conventional wisdom” better than the usual experts who are tapped to provide sage comments on all-day news channels. Biden entering the presidential race was going off at 60-40 late last week. Carly Fiorina was seen as more likely than Donald Trump to win the Iowa caucuses, not so much because she had more support post-debate, but because he had less.

This may sound like it’s coming from the same devious minds turning Fantasy Football into a daily gambling enterprise and buying up tons of television commercials to convince thousands of suckers they could become a millionaire with the right picks. (Before you get too judgmental, let’s acknowledge the state does the exact same thing with the lottery.)

PredictIt, however, was conceived by folks at the University of Victoria in Wellington, New Zealand, as a research project for prediction markets, which are sometimes more accurate than polling in forecasting the outcome of certain events.

Which is an even better excuse for betting on elections than anyone in any newsroom ever came up with. It’s research. Honest.



Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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