How Well Did Sports-Betting Sites Predict the 2020 Presidential Election?

Better than pollsters, unsurprisingly

Sports Betting Sites Beat Pollsters at Calling the 2020 Presidential Election
Joe Biden speaks as Kamala Harris looks on on November 5, 2020.
AFP via Getty Images

Sometime long after midnight on Election Day, your humble correspondent succumbed to a combination of bourbon, burgers and CNN blaring in the background and passed out in bed. It was a troubling sleep, full of twists and turns as, much to my chagrin, it appeared the 2020 presidential election was heading to the exact same result as the 2016 edition: four years of Donald Trump as president.

Waking up Wednesday morning, the news was less grim, if tougher to decipher: ballots remained uncounted across the country and there seemed to be no clear consensus on the internet — other than that pollsters and statisticians had once again made terrible predictions — about who was going to win.

Joe Biden, the clear favorite according to the pre-election polls, had been trailing badly late on election night, and though he seemed to have gained some ground overnight, it was unclear if his gains were enough to make it a tight race.

Unsure about where else to look and remembering that the election had been the most heavily bet event of the year in Europe and the U.K., I decided that perhaps a look at the odds of Biden winning on a sports-gambling site was in order. What an idea that was, as here are the odds that greeted me at Bovada’s site:

The presidential odds at Bovada early on November 4.

If you’re unfamiliar, those odds mean that, at the time, you’d have had to bet $440 on Biden in order to win $100, meaning that he was essentially a 4:1 favorite to win the election in the eyes of Bovada’s handicappers.

From that point on, as votes continued to be counted in states including Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada and Arizona while tensions remained high, a sense of relative calm swept over me. As the day progressed and contradictory news continued to pour onto the internet, I’d just return to Bovada’s site and keep seeing odds creeping in Biden’s favor. It was bliss.

As it turns out, Bovada wasn’t the only site that had recognized that Biden, despite having a terrible night on Tuesday, was the winner by Wednesday morning.

Essentially, those odds show Biden going from being a slight pre-game favorite to a massive underdog on Tuesday night to the biggest favorite he’d been up to that point in time by Wednesday morning. Their predictions in key batttleground states were equally prescient. By Wednesday night, as cable news channels were hemming and hawing over whether the former vice president could possibly catch Trump in Georgia and Pennsylvania or retain his lead in Arizona, Bovada’s odds strongly suggested that he’d carry all three:

The odds in key states on Wednesday night

Much like the way the odds are adjusted for changes in weather, key injuries or a rookie quarterback making his first start, oddsmakers were able to shift the odds on Biden-Trump in real time based on information about mail-in votes and uncounted ballots in urban areas and adjust the line accordingly.

Did they nail it? As of this writing, it is still too early to officially say. But it certainly looks as if sportsbook handicappers outperformed pollsters and politics wonks.

Moral of the story: next time an election rolls round, don’t trust Nate Silver — call your bookie.

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