British Betting on US Election Soars

By Kevin McCandless | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

London ( - In what's been described as the most exciting contest in years, British bookmakers expect to see more than $9 million bet on the American election by the time it's all over on Tuesday.

Taking wagers over the phone, over the Internet and in person at thousands of legal betting shops across the country, long-established bookmakers such as William Hill and Ladbrokes said that interest in the U.S. election had more than quadrupled since 2000.

While not as big an event as Wimbledon or the soccer World Cup, Ladbrokes spokesman Warren Lush said Friday that this U.S. election dwarfed the amount of money taken in any recent Superbowl or World Series.

"If you're over here, it's the main news," Lush said. "It's arguably the most important election in the world. Plus it's got all that drama and razzmatazz. The British general election will be nothing compared to this."

Under liberal gambling laws, bookmakers here are allowed to offer odds not only on sporting fixtures, but also on a whole range of other events and possibilities.

From whether or not it will snow on Christmas day to the winners of televised dance contests, British citizens can usually find someone to take a bet on whatever their hearts desire.

Not only are firms offering odds on the eventual winner of the election, customers can also bet on the overall electoral vote won by each candidate and individual states captured by each party.

Lush said that while his company was probably taking a number of bets from expatriate Americans, it followed industry practice by not accepting bets from people residing in the United States.

Graham Sharpe, spokesman for William Hill, said last week that betting has been fairly evenly split between George Bush and John Kerry. As a result, his company was facing very little risk, whatever the eventual outcome.

"From a bookmaking position, it's a very happy situation," Sharpe said. "People have been betting very evenly, so you don't have an exposed position."

On Sunday evening, William Hill had George Bush at odds of 1 to 1.57, with John Kerry at 1 to 2.25, reflecting similar stakes posted by other companies.

Professor Leighton Vaughan Williams, director of the Betting Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, said British bookies will see at least five million pounds ($9.17 million) taken on the U.S. election.

In addition, he said that spread-betting firms, which take bets on the range of electoral votes won by each party, should handle around one million pounds ($1.83 million).

Englishmen, he added, had a long history of wagering on American elections. Tradition had bets placed on George Washington's first election - in 1789 - and recorded gambles dated back to 1868.

Vaughan Williams said that bets were more accurate than polls when it came to predicting election winners. In the recent Australian general election, opinion surveys had been all over the place but the betting consistently favored Prime Minister John Howard, the eventual victor.

"In the end, the bets were more accurate than the polls."

Despite this, Vaughan Williams said that he was very wary of trying to say who would win on Tuesday.

"Right now, Bush has a 52 percent chance of winning," he said. "It's the closest I've ever seen it."

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