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Money Drives Politics -- In More Ways Than One...By Nelson Lardner

During the Golden Age of this thing we do--when baseball, boxing and horse racing were the wagering preferences in the good ol' USA, there was one other seasonal bone of betting contention, especially among the landed gentry -- elections, preferably of the presidential variety, with the ones that figured tight being the most popular vehicles.

Las Vegas has always been strictly hands-off, re this stuff. It's the street bookies and associated brain trusts that have made the markets on voting results -- and with slim exception, the layers have done a remarkable job of it, sucking in supporters of the wrong sides of close races. Outside of the 1948 presidential race, the last-weekend consensus of oddsmakers to win the presidency has not lost since the dawn of the twentieth century.

A couple of the most notorious polling errors of modern history illustrate the exceptions that prove the rule: Way back in 1936, the Literary Digest, a national publication of prominent long-term standing at the time, published poll results which indicated that Republican Alf Landon would unseat the sitting President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This poll flew in the face of broad pundit opinion at the time, but the Digest remained steadfast, despite the fact that Roosevelt was the pronounced betting favorite. We all know the story . . . Landon carried Maine and Vermont for the GOP, and FDR racked up the Electoral College, 523-8. It turned out the LD based its call on a postcard poll employing names derived from auto registrations and telephone records, at a time when mere automobile ownership and maintenance of a home phone indicated that you were keeping your head above water more successfully than many sucked under by the nagging not-so-Great Depression. This proved a crushing blow for the Digest, which was quietly absorbed by Time magazine, two years later.

Fast-forward to 1948, when it was widely anticipated that the liberal governor of New York State, Thomas J. Dewey, was a huge favorite to make amends for his 1944 loss to FDR in his race with incumbent Harry Truman. Various polls taken early that fall indicated that Dewey held a commanding lead.

The example above leads me to a rare circumstance . . . my giving credit to someone I have precious-little respect for. But, alas, we must. As exhaustively detailed in his nauseatingly-self-reverential autogiography, Jimmy Snyder (later best known for making imprudent sociological comments in public, and for an epic on-set fight with Brent Musburger during an NFL Today pregame broadcast on CBS) made a tremendous score on this race -- the last real upset in United States presidential annals. Aided by the fact that the the final Gallup poll was held October 16 -21, a full two weeks prior to the '48 vote (hard to believe, but there it was), the Greek did his own work, and put two and two together. Convinced that the race truly wasn't the runaway many perceived, Snyder combined basic logic (business conditions through much of '48 were respectably strong: unemployment was relatively low, and Joe Sixpack really didn't have any kick coming) with voter psychology (Dewey ran a "prevent-defense" campaign, mouthing bland platitudes, while Truman was a powerful stump campaigner who scored points attacking the GOP-dominated "do-nothing" 80th congress. Snyder also concluded that women weren't enamored of men who wore moustaches, and Dewey had long effected that hirsute adornment). Snyder nailed down as much as 30-1 on Truman by Election Day. It was close, but Truman carried Ohio, Illinois and California -- each by < 1%. Eventually, it all turned on California, Truman won his own full term -- and the Greek won a reputation-making play of epic proportions. The price was right.

Kennedy over Nixon in '60, Nixon over Humphrey in '68, Carter over Ford in '76, W in '00 and '04 . . . favorites all, winners all. Over the last half-century, once early markets settled, and books incorporated intelligence from wagering input from their sharpest customers, the established favorite always got there . . . and we're talking some of the most spine-tingling elections in human history. Barring utter poll-technique negligence and/or stupidity, polls are markedly-accurate indicators of presidential bottom-lines.

Chicken/egg debates are pointless . . . results are results. Money drives politics, and politics drives money . . . the tradition continues. The Trade Exchange Network (most of you are likely familiar with their Intrade and Tradesports products) has already gained quite the reputation in its brief existence of its markets being election-eve belwether indicators of major stateside races. Intrade's 2004 market favorites (George W. Bush, and the winners of every one of the nation's 34 Senate races, save Alaska's) ALL prevailed, and will note that action on the Alaska race was sketchy, throughout. Fairness dictates noting that many of those races were non-competitive from the beginning, but to accurately project virtually all close races based on predictive-wagering-market study is impressive.

You know the drill, so far, this campaign . . . one by one, contests projected close in midsummer now feature imposing poll leads by Democratic candidates (the Tennessee race being the lone exception). New Jersey and Ohio are the best examples. As I type this on 11/6, Monday morning, only three Senate races remain competitive in Intrade's markets . . . those of Montana, Virginia, and Missouri -- all GOP states in modern lights which appear to be going the other way, this time. Connie Burns may be coming back a bit from his poll lows in Montana, but challenger Jon Tester remains a pronounced favorite in the marketplace. Six weeks ago, George Allen loomed a near-sure thing in Virginia, but imprudent, patronizing public comments and subsequent clumsy attempts to repair the self-inflicted damage have left a wide-open hole for ex-GOPer Jim Webb to surge through and assume the favorite's role. As for Missouri, the Jim Talent/Claire McCaskill race was virtually pick-em as late as Sunday morning, but the market broke for McCaskill in a significant way early Sunday evening -- and bid offers at any competitive price on Talent's chances have been as scarce as hen's teeth over the last twelve hours as I relay these thoughts, just prior to 8 AM (EST), Monday.

Get out there and vote on Tuesday. If there's a rascal to be thrown out in your neighborhood, throw 'em out. If there's somebody actually worth keeping, do your part to maintain their legislative or statehouse presence. But when some talking coif refers to a McCaskill or Tester Senate win as an "upset", just shake your head and grin, wryly . . . just as you do when some sports yahoo refers to a pointspread-favorite winner as an surprise, because they may be listed lower in the polls, or be unranked. You know better. You're an informed observer. You do your homework. You know what to expect. To survive in this arena -- or in this country -- you'd better.

Nelson Lardner

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