Betting On A Trump Impeachment

20/02/2017 12:07
Bastiaan Slabbers via Getty Images

Betting odds at British bookmakers are tumbling on the possibility of Donald Trump's imminent impeachment. Ladbrokes, for instance, has taken the odds as low as 11/10 -- just over evens. But what do radically narrowing odds actually mean, especially in relation to something like a presidential impeachment -- what purchase do the bookies have on political reality? It's worth remembering that bookmakers across the board had far narrower odds on Clinton winning the 2016 election than they did for Trump -- with Paddy Power even paying out on bets on Clinton before the election was over, and in the process costing itself several million. It is worth examining more closely the eyebrow-raising markets available on Trump -- for they seem to constitute not the prediction of political change, but the hope and desire for it.

It is the scurrilously unscrupulous Paddy Power that is leading the way in what it calls "Trump Specials", including an outrageous triptych of "Golden" markets: "To paint the entire White House gold (500/1)"; "To replace the gold lift in Trump Tower (14/1)"; and -- taking the vulgarity to a new level -- "Golden Shower footage to appear on RedTube (4/1)". There is some degree of silliness here -- some of these are in line with Paddy Power's previous markets on the trial of Oscar Pistorius (they asked, to controversy, "Will he walk?"). You can also bet on "Trump to split from Melania in 2017", if you so wish. But the only odds that appear realistic might be the aforementioned market relating to a porn streaming website, and the 6/1 nestled just beneath it: "Trump to be impeached in the first 6 months of Presidency".

Here it is the more 'serious' Ladbrokes that is leading the way. No concrete figures are circulating in the media, but Ladbrokes has suggested in press releases that it is working hard to keep up with the money being put towards a Trump impeachment "before the end of the 1st term" -- and it is this market that has been slimmed right down to 11/10. Practically an 'evens' bet, this is absurdly low. On the surface of things, it is to say that there is an almost even chance that Trump will or will not be impeached in his first term -- the toss of a coin. Nothing like this market would have existed for Obama, make no mistake; but had they existed at all, they would have probably been 300/1, at least. As the press have reported these drastically narrowed odds, it appears to spell bad things for Trump.

As a side note, it's a fun distraction to search Google for odds on a presidential assassination -- a conversation being held with frequency in the backrooms of the internet, but not one that will go mainstream any time soon. It takes only a very basic understanding of gambling to know why these can't be legitimate bets on their own terms: markets can affect, as much as they reflect, reality. To open a book to the effect of "chances of the President being shot" is to create a financial incentive for that outcome. But thankfully the bookies have this covered: though Paddy Power, Ladbrokes, BetFair, and many other bookies offer odds on both 'resignation' and 'impeachment', they also all have something like "When will Trump be replaced?", starting at 7/2 for this year. 'Replaced', when it is sat alongside already existing markets for resignation and impeachment, serves to cover, euphemistically, the difficult legal ground of "When will the president be shot and killed?" -- or else die of a heart-attack.

The idea of a fluid relationship between betting markets and the world lies at the centre of the significance of the narrow odds on impeachment. The slimness of 11/10 odds doesn't really indicate an almost fifty-fifty chance of impeachment, but it does say something about a public fickleness towards numbers, probabilities, and predictions. Before the election, Nate Silver's number-crunching prediction-machine FiveThirtyEight was consulted as an oracular force, and its easy-to-digest visual displays of raw data were a comforting quotidian presence throughout. Clinton commanded at least an 80% chance of victory for months on end before the election. After Trump's infamous "pussy grabbing" video surfaced, this shot up past 90%. FiveThirtyEight's hard numbers became more like a soft blanket -- some solace from the nightmare notion of a Trump win.

But Trump won. Suddenly, the prophetic figures of statisticians and forecasters were worth less to us -- worthless, even. What good were they if the prediction was wrong? (Of course, as Silver himself has been forced repeatedly to stress, if you're predicted to win nine times out of ten, then you're predicted to lose once every ten times. Trump won that one time out of ten.) Statisticians continue to take a thrashing at the hands of the public, as have experts and the media at the hands of the new White House administrators. It's little wonder that alternative models of prophecy are in demand, along with alternative facts.

The influx in betting on impeachment thus seems to represent a kind of more honest relationship with statistics, even if it must be a slightly grubby one. The bookies aren't working with raw data alone -- they adjust their figures in response to gossip and hearsay, incalculable effects and unquantifiable units of change. The markets will shift if the bettors -- we could call think of them as wishful 'voters' -- all move in one direction. The head of Ladbrokes' political betting was quoted in The Independent as saying, of Trump, that "Punters seem to think there's a good chance he will leave office before the end of his first term". The bookmakers are responding to the minds of the bettors, and not the other way around. Instinct, chanciness, and blind faith have sway, as do hard facts and numbers. The bookies' markets appear more honest, finally, because they are at least in part modelled on superstition as well as science; betting as a system of belief.

What we find in the shrinking odds on Trump's impeachment is not necessarily a signal that his stint in the White House is nearly over, nor that his own luck has run dry. The numbers will shrink in step with the direction in which the bets are made. It's as if the bettors believe that the American public voted, but got it wrong. If only there was another vote, another black and white, binary, box-ticking exercise in chance, superstition, and belief. A sort of fantasy re-run of the whole thing, driven by bettors and bookies; a counterfactual political narrative spurned on by the exchange of small sums of money. This is what it might mean when people are drawn en masse to political betting markets, when they cast their real money in accordance with their hearts and not necessarily their minds, and when the odds are slimming drastically on a presidential impeachment. It is a fittingly neoliberal signal of both desperation and hope.

Update: As of 17/02/2017, PaddyPower has removed the more salacious markets from its website. It still runs the books on impeachment, and a new market has appeared: "Donald Trump to be Officially Accused of Russian Collusion". It stands at 3/1.