To borrow the cliché, the 2016 U.S. presidential election has been one for the books – but in the United Kingdom, it’s been one for the bookies.
With just one week to go, Hillary Clinton remains a substantial favorite at offshore sportsbooks and at shops in the betting-mad United Kingdom, with odds hovering around -300 – meaning one must bet $300 to win $100. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is in the range of a +275 underdog – meaning a $100 bet could bring in $275.
Such odds and wagers would seem to be right up Las Vegas’ alley. Except you can’t legally bet on elections there, nor anywhere else in America. That doesn’t sit well with renowned Las Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro.
“The thing I’m most angry about, it’s very simple: the whole world is concerned about our next president, and we’re the only country who can’t book it.” Vaccaro said. “That’s a shame.”
Mind you, there are other countries where you can’t bet on politics. But that doesn’t diminish Vaccaro’s point, nor his desire to put up odds on this wild campaign, which he’s been doing at the South Point Hotel Casino’s sportsbook ever since Trump joined the race.
Of course, those odds can’t actually be posted on the big betting board, as they are for entertainment purposes only. But much like the election season itself, the ebb-and-flow of the odds has been nothing if not entertaining.
In June, 2015, after much speculation, Trump threw his hat into an already crowded GOP presidential candidate ring. The move caught everybody’s attention across the political spectrum, and it certainly piqued Vaccaro’s interest.
“I have never paid more attention to an election than this year,” the 71-year-old Vaccaro said. “When Trump announced he was running, you just knew it was gonna be a little different.”
Vaccaro wanted to be part of that “little different.” So he first came up with odds on who would win the GOP nomination, with Trump a 20-to-1 long shot, meaning a $100 bet would net a $2,000 payout -- if you could bet it. Vaccaro pegged Jeb Bush the favorite for the nomination more than 16 months ago, at 4-to-1.
Meanwhile, the offshore sportsbooks and shops in the U.K. had long been all in on presidential election betting in general, and specifically on Trump, pulling in real wagers.
Peter Childs, head oddsmaker at Sportsbook.ag, told Covers that his shop opened up the presidential proposition betting market in 2012 with Trump as much a 200-to-1 long shot – meaning a winning $100 wager would bring a massive $20,000 payout.
“We wrote tickets at that price, and with those odds, you can get exposed real quickly with just a few bets,” Childs said the day after Trump officially joined the race.
Just ahead of Trump’s declaration, he was 50-to-1 to win the presidency at Sportsbook.ag. He moved to 40-to-1 right away with another wave of big bets.
However, he was still a long shot against not only Clinton – the +115 favorite in June 2015, meaning a $100 bet could win you $115 – but against the top Republican candidates: Jeb Bush (+500), Marco Rubio and Scott Walker (+1,500 each), and Chris Christie (+2,500).
Trump’s odds of becoming president equated to +4,000. A great payout, to be sure, with a $100 bet returning a potential $4,000, but also indicative of Trump’s still huge – or YUGE – long-shot status.
UK-based sportsbook Ladbrokes had Trump at 33-to-1 (+3,300) just to win the nomination after he joined the crowded GOP field, and 100-to-1 (+10,000) to win the 2016 election.
At the time, Ladbrokes spokesperson Alex Donohue told Covers: “Should Trump defy the odds, it would be one of the biggest political betting upsets of all time. He may take his challenge pretty seriously, but we don’t.”
Over the course of the next 16-plus months, Trump has proven several times that his challenge should be taken pretty seriously – while on several occasions also managing to fully justify Ladbrokes’ initial skepticism.
Last December at Bookmaker.eu, Trump was still a +300 underdog to win the GOP nomination. By late March, he was the -380 favorite, meaning it would require a $380 wager to win $100 – a complete reversal of fortune, and then some. Though his odds tightened over the last couple of months of the primary season, he still claimed the nomination.
At Sportsbook.ag, Trump winning the nomination wasn’t really a problem – “We actually make some money,” Childs said then – but by mid-April, the prospect of Trump winning the presidency was becoming worrisome, as Childs noted at the time.
“We’re extremely exposed on Trump winning the presidency, to the likes that I might be looking for work if he does indeed win this election,” he said.
All the while, Clinton was a huge favorite to secure the Democratic nomination. In mid-April, she was -750 at Bookmaker.eu and -1,000 at Sportsbook.ag, which had Sanders a +600 underdog to beat her. By mid-June, she had the nomination wrapped up, with Bookmaker.eu installing her as a -400 favorite against Trump in the general election.
Vaccaro kept his odds going, too, pegging Clinton -300 and Trump +250 in May, when it became clear those two would be the major party candidates.
Just as in the election polling, both candidates got a boost from their respective parties’ conventions, and the odds ebbed and flowed throughout August before a bumpy first two weeks of September for Clinton drew this race as tight as it had ever been at the sportsbooks. Trump was just a +160 underdog at Sportsbook.ag, with Clinton’s favored odds closing to -180.
Shortly thereafter, though, the “Access Hollywood” tape and all its aftershocks slammed Trump down to +515 at Bookmaker.eu by the day of the final debate – appropriately enough, held here in Vegas – while Clinton looked prepared for a coronation as a -740 favorite three weeks before Election Day. Clinton wagers were flooding into the offshore and overseas books. Ireland sportsbook Paddy Power, looking to stem the seemingly inevitable tide, took the almost unprecedented step of actually paying off those who held tickets on Clinton – a $1 million hit, 21 days before a vote was even tallied.
Said a Paddy Power spokesperson after the decision: “Trump gave it a hell of a shot going from a rank outsider to Republican candidate, but the recent flood of revelations have halted his momentum, and his chances now look as patchy as his tan.”
Added Vaccaro: “We figured she’d be -600 forever after that. You have to raise the odds on Clinton because of what Trump said.”
So that was it, right? Well, in an election season that seems like it might never end, no, that was not it.
In yet another October surprise, the FBI announced on Friday – just 11 days before the election – that it was revisiting Clinton’s email scandal, after an unrelated investigation revealed more of those emails. And just like that, the offshore books were slammed with Trump money.
“We’ve gone from +350 to +220 (on Trump winning), as we’ve seen significant money on Trump, and it’s not stopping,” Childs said on Friday afternoon, noting Clinton was at -290.
Matthew Shaddick, head of political odds at UK book Ladbrokes, also saw a surge.
“There's been a pretty big move already,” he said. “Trump's odds (are) in from 7/2 to 5/2 (+250), which implies an increase in his chances from 21 percent to 27 percent, which is relatively dramatic. Quite possibly, this is a massive over-reaction, but hard to tell right now.”
A week ago at Bookmaker.eu, Clinton was a huge -785 favorite, and an oddsmaker told Covers: “We have incredible liability on Clinton winning, so we’re praying for a miraculous Trump victory. We raised the price drastically on Clinton to stop the flow of money on her, hoping for some buyback on Trump. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened to a great extent.”
Friday’s news changed that, cutting Clinton’s number by more than half to -374, while Trump went from +560 to +323. At William Hill UK, Clinton was at -350 and Trump +275. In a William Hill UK press release Sunday, media relations director Graham Sharpe said, “Betting support for Hillary Clinton to win the U.S. election has virtually dried up during the last week.”
Granted, in all this, Clinton still remains a heavy betting favorite to win come Nov. 8. Some of the aforementioned sportsbooks are also taking wagers on whether the Senate and/or the House will flip from Republican majority to Democratic majority. For example, at Bookmaker.eu, on the question of whether the GOP will hold the Senate, “no” is a -173 favorite, meaning the body is favored to flip, though the odds are much tighter than the presidential race right now.
But again, you can’t bet on those odds here in Vegas, even though there is huge interest in doing so. Vaccaro said that within days of the South Point’s marketing team touting his presidential odds, way back in June 2015, calls began pouring in from national media. He started to treat the election just like he would sports.
“You adjust every week as it happens, just like you would on a football game,” he said, adding he’s had sheets printed up that go in the sportsbooks’ racks, alongside all the events you can actually wager on. “At first, tourists rushed to the counter, thinking they could bet on it. They were very disappointed when they found out they couldn’t make a bet.
“What we thought would be a little fun has turned out to be a lot of fun, but you couldn’t bet 3 cents on it. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Vaccaro will still keep churning out those odds, though, through Election Day. He currently has Clinton a -400 favorite and Trump a +350 underdog. And while he wouldn’t make a prediction on who will win, he’s got a safe bet on what the final seven days will bring.
“What I expect is, it’s politics. Chaotic. Insane,” Vaccaro said. “I don’t know where it’s going, and nobody else does either.”
Editor's note: This story was written by Patrick Everson, a Las Vegas-based senior writer for Covers.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @Covers_Vegas.