Dead Man’s Hand: Betting on Biden and Trump

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Since presidential voting leads to such unhappiness (Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six races, but it has hardly slowed them down), perhaps the Constitution should be amended so that the winning candidate is the one with the best betting odds at midnight on election night?

Maybe to lend the exercise the air of republican virtue, the Electoral College—in making its decision—could weigh all of the major online betting sites, such FanDuel, DraftKings, and Bet365.

Previously, it might well have been the presidential polls that determined the outcome of elections (on the basis that no one wants to vote for a loser), but since Dewey beat Truman in 1948 (at least in the polls and the morning-after headlines), few presidential elections (notably 2016) have lent themselves to divination, and this one is no exception.

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In the current presidential election, the betting odds have Donald Trump as the favorite (-109), which estimates his chances at 52%, while Joe Biden is close but behind at +122, which puts his odds at 45%. (By way of definition, these odds mean anyone who bets $109 on Trump to win will receive, if he does win, $100. By contrast, $100 bet on Biden to win will earn you $122 if he prevails.)

In other consolidations of betting sites, Trump has a 50% chance of winning the presidency, while Biden’s odds are only 35% and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s chances are at 6%. (He would have better odds as a spoiler or for receiving an endorsement from Martians.)

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Compare these bettings odds to the presidential polls, which rely less on Vegas oddsmakers and more on the political opinions of those who respond to pollsters questions (notably a subpopulation of people who actually answer their landline telephones).

In the Real Clear Politics blend of national averages, Trump is ahead in the polls 45.2% to Biden’s 44.8%, but perhaps more important is that Trump has an average lead of 3.2% in the seven battleground states (Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Nevada).

Of these seven swing states, the significant lead is Trump’s 2.3% advantage in Pennsylvania, which President Biden has to win if he is to be re-elected.

For the moment in the battleground states, Biden is only within shouting distance in Wisconsin and Michigan (both are nearly tied), but without Pennsylvania they are not enough to give Biden victory.

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These are the same polls that were discredited in 2016. So to sweeten the pot of the witches’ brew, 538 (the news and polling center now owned by ABC News) has created a 2024 forecast that runs 1000 simulations of a Trump – Biden election.

Into its cascade of simulated elections, 538 includes not just polling results from across the nation but stirs in other variables, including economic data, margins of errors in previous elections, presidential approval ratings (Biden’s are abysmal), historical precedents, the skew of the Electoral College, polling bias, and other uncertainties.

Then when it pushes the “run” button on its model, the result is a Christmas tree of red and blue dots that show—in a thousand simulated elections— President Biden winning 517 times and Trump winning 479 times. (In four simulated elections, no one wins and the race goes to the House of Representatives, assuming no one has stormed Congress with hockey sticks.)

In other words, except in the Desert (slang for Vegas), the presidential election (as measured today) is a toss up and well within any margin of polling error, although the 538 forecast modeling makes the point that as we get closer to election (and if many of the existing variables hold consistent), Trump’s chances of winning increase. (The Economist puts Trump’s chances of winning at 60%.)

In the 538 election scenario with the highest (relative) probability, Trump wins 298 electoral votes to Biden’s 240. (I guess it also assumes that Trump’s parole officer would allow him to travel out of New York state to accept the presidency.)

When I build my own electoral college map—giving Trump Arizona and Nevada, while assigning to Biden Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan—I come up with a 269 – 269 tie. (“Stand back and stand by” if that happens.)

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The problem with polling data and Vegas odds is that both assume the world is perpetually static, as of the date their predictions are issued.

In these computer models, for example, Trump is a legitimate presidential candidate of an established political party (not a sociopathic hot mess with a string of criminal indictments whose stump speeches sound like the ramblings of a vagrant), while Joe Biden is perhaps a little on the old side of incumbent presidents running for re-election but is otherwise not the ghost of the candidate we see whispering platitudes and shuffling on the evening news.

In that sense, the best odds for the coming presidential election would be to bet on the side of a looming political crisis, which has to be the only winning hand come November or the months that follow.

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Let’s start with a model on the next four years in the life and times of Donald Trump in American politics, and let’s assume he is re-elected to the presidency, despite giving stump speeches that sound like this one delivered in Nevada (guarantee—all dialogue is reported verbatim):

So we have a country thats in trouble. Were going to end the mandate on electric one day. They want to make all boats too. I went to a boat company in South Carolina, the boat.

I said, How is it?” He said, Its a problem, sir. They want us to make all electric boats.”

These are boats that are from 16 to 35 or so feet, fishing boats, leisure boats, beautiful company in South Carolina, beautiful. The guys been doing it for 50 years. He sells hundreds of boats every couple of months. I mean, really fantastic guy. And they use the Mercury engines and different engines in the back, no problem. They want to take that out. They want to make it all electric.

He said, The problem is the boat is so heavy it cant float.”

I said, That sounds like a problem.”

He said, Also, it cant go fast because of the weight. And they want to now have a fifty-mile or a seventy-mile radius. You have to go out 70 miles before you can really start the boat up and you go out at two knots.” Thats essentially almost like two miles an hour.

Say, How long does it take you to get out there?”

Many hours, and then youre allowed to go around for 10 minutes, but you have to come back because the batteries only last for a very short period of time.”

So I said, Let me ask you a question.”And he said, Nobody ever asked this question, and it must be because of MIT, my relationship to MIT,” very smart. I say, What would happen if the boat sank from its weight and youre in the boat and you have this tremendously powerful battery and the batterys underwater, and theres a shark thats approximately 10 yards over there?”

By the way, a lot of shark attacks lately. Do you notice that? A lot of shark… I watched some guys justifying it today. Well, they werent really that angry. They bit off the young ladys leg because of the fact that they were not hungry, but they misunderstood who she was.” These people are crazy.

He said, Theres no problem with sharks. They just didnt really understand a young woman swimming now who really got decimated and other people too,” a lot of shark attacks.

So I said, So theres a shark 10 yards away from the boat, 10 yards or here. Do I get electrocuted if the boat is sinking, and water goes over the battery, the boat is sinking. Do I stay on top of the boat and get electrocuted or do I jump over by the shark and not get electrocuted?” Because I will tell you he didnt know the answer.

He said, Nobodys ever asked me that question.”

I said, I think its a good question. I think theres a lot of electric current coming through that water.

But you know what Id do if there was a shark or you get electrocuted, Ill take electrocution every single time. Im not getting near the shark.

I quote this monologue at length to make the point that no one speaking in such tongues in a presidential campaign has a chance to retain mental stability during the next four years, leaving aside that Trump’s first order of business upon election would be to disentangle himself from his 57 remaining criminal indictments and his 34 felony convictions, touching off more constitutional crises.

Then there are Trump’s many financial liabilities—more than $500 million in judicial judgments and the coming financial collapse of his Wall Street Ponzi scheme (Trump Media). And don’t rule out more sexual offenses and scandals, given that he’s an adjudicated rapist and paid $130,000 to a porn star after—as his lawyers claimed in court—he did not having have sex with her at a golf tournament.

Even if Trump can stream his unconsciousness through the November election and beat Biden, there are no chances that his presidency would be anything other than one long Reichstag fire—an endless political crisis with opponents thrown in jail, self-pardons being issued, and American allies (except for Israel) being thrown under the bus of Putin’s Axis of Evil.


The outcome of a Biden re-election will be equally chaotic, if only because the Democratic Party has decided to bet both its future, and perhaps that of the republic, on an 82-year-old man (come November 20, 2024) who probably needs cue cards to get through the White House Easter Egg Roll (and GPS to find some of them).

Mind you, very little of Biden’s presidential utterances are left to chance, but even reading a teleprompter leads to problems, as the enclosed White House transcript of a speech given to the NCAAP in Detroit makes clear with its added strike-over text and inserted corrections. It quotes Biden as saying:

And when I was vice president, things were kind of bad during the pandemic [recession], and what happened was Barack said to me, Go to Detroit and help fix it.” Well, poor mayor, he spent more time with me than he ever thought he was going to have to.  (Laughter.)  God love you.


THE PRESIDENT: Folks, Im humbled to receive this organization [award], which defines the character and consequence of what we do.  Im always grateful to Derrick Johnson, the leadership for the NAACP.  (Applause.)

Of course, thanks to all the members of the biggest NAACP branch in America — in Detroit. (Applause.)

And its great to see so many friends, including Debbie Stabenow.  Im going to miss her in Washington, but shes not going to get away because Im going to keep coming to her for advice. Ill always be your friend and seek your counsel….

 Look, folks, I just came from Atlanta, where I delivered a commencement at Morehouse College. (Applause.)  It was truly inspiresing [inspiring]: over 400 young Black men who will do extraordinary things.

To me the odds are zero that by the end of his next term, should he win one, Biden would be capable of serving as president.

Hence, at the very least, his next term would be one endless speculation as whether and when to exercise the 25th Amendment and remove him from office.

Already in 2024 Biden’s voice is a stage whisper, and his gait is that of a humanoid. Under oath with a special prosecutor looking into his possession of classified documents, he could not remember when he was vice president or when his son died. He regularly conflates the names and countries of world leaders, placing Mexicans in Gaza and Frenchmen in Germany. He thinks Israel is the country of 1948.

At any unscripted event, Biden’s principal, bewildered refrain is to search for lost images, words, or names. His candidacy is an exercise in whistling past these many graveyards, which may explain how it is possible for him to be, on average, polling behind a convicted felon railing against Jaws.


In the second tier of presidential odds, the Desert weighs Kamala Harris’s chances of being elected president this November at 3% ($100 earns you $3300 if by chance she runs in place of Biden and wins). By contrast, Vegas has Gavin Newsome’s chances at 6% ($100 earns you $1,567 if he wins), the same odds as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. On the Republican side, after Trump, Nikki Haley comes in at +17,900 ($100 earns you $17,9000 if she wins).

It’s quite a spread, given that Trump lives on The Cheeseburger Diet and takes pleasure in flipping off his sentencing judge.

The best political bet would be what in futures markets is called a “straddle”: to buy a portfolio of Newsome, Harris, Haley, and perhaps some other Trump VP candidates (from that shortlist that includes Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, J.D. Vance, Tim Scott, and Elise Stefanik) and then to “sell” both Biden and Trump.

The bet or straddle is that in the next five months the favorable odds associated with Biden and Trump will fall, while the stock of those waiting in the wings rises.

To cash in, all that has to happen is for Biden to fall down a set of stairs or for Trump to be sentenced to jail, both of which are better bets than that either man will string together a complex sentence.

The 2024 election odds might work for the Desert but there’s even money, given the fish drawing cards here, that says the democracy goes bust.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.