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Betting on US elections booms overseas

While Donald Trump weathered criticism over remarks he made about Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly, his unofficial odds improved to 15-1 from 20-1 to win the Republican nomination — at least according to Jimmy Vaccaro.

“He is a marquee value,” said Vaccaro, a renowned odds maker at the South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Trump “is like the Dallas Cowboys. People either love him or love to hate him. I’m rooting for my man Donald to stay in the race for quite a while.”

Whether or not you agree with Trump’s standing, wagering on the 2016 presidential election has become a big business overseas. Americans are finding ways to get in on the action — despite laws that prohibit online gambling and betting on elections.

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Vaccaro is handing out his own unofficial odds on the Republican presidential nominee for the first time this year as a way to drum up talk about politics at the Las Vegas sports book he oversees. He created the odds “for entertainment purposes only,” but he plans to update them on a weekly basis.

He has no doubt that campaigns are keeping tabs on how they are faring with him.

“I guarantee you they’re watching,” said Vaccaro.

State laws don’t permit online gambling or wagering on elections, but advocates for legalized betting on elections hope that eventually changes.

“There is certainly is a lot of pressure to change it because of the overseas activities,” said I. Nelson Rose, professor at Whittier Law School in Los Angeles and an expert on international gaming laws.

Websites in Ireland and England offer a variety of wagering and prediction markets on who will become the next US president from now until Election Day.

The Iowa Electronic Markets — a research website operated by the University of Iowa — offers a legal way to wager on the 2016 presidential election with real money through futures contracts. The Iowa project received a special dispensation by federal officials because its markets are used as an educational tool at the business school.

“You could, in effect, bet on whether a candidate was going to win, but you could also put up money the other way,” said Rose, who used the Iowa project and other venues to wager on the 2008 presidential election.

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Wagering on elections has been outlawed in the United States largely over concerns that it would influence the contest.

“That’s hard to do on the presidential level, but not on the local level,” Rose said. “These are pretty archaic laws from a time when it was easier to rig elections than they are today.”

Offshore gambling operations rake in millions of dollars from bets made on US elections, experts said.

Some lawmakers in Nevada believe the United States is losing out by restricting a form of gambling that has been happening legally around the globe for decades.

Nevada state Senator Richard “Tick” Segerblom has spent the past two terms trying to pass a bill that would allow wagering on US elections in his state. The bill passed the Senate in 2013 but didn’t survive the state House. Segerblom, a Democrat, blamed a Republican-controlled state Senate with its quick defeat this year.

“It seemed like a no-brainer to me,” Segerblom said of the legislation. “In reality, it’s already happening in Europe. Why not bet in Nevada and make some money on it? People say it’s going to ruin our reputation. This is Nevada. What kind of reputation are you talking about?”

Segerblom said he will submit a similar bill for legalizing gambling on elections as soon as he can in the next session — in 2017.

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Vaccaro, an odds maker for four decades, hopes that talk about wagering on elections could increase support for legalization.

“It’s one of the biggest, biggest betting days at off-shore places in England,” Vaccaro said. “It’s a huge, huge, huge day. On the other end of the spectrum, we could not care less on who becomes the prime minister. They use our election as a huge revenue generator.”

He estimated that if betting on the US presidential election became legal, it would draw as much wagering as Super Bowl Sunday.

“We could put this up four years before the event and you would be surprised how many people would come in and out of town and place bets,” he said.

Potential revenue aside, Larry DeGaris, professor of marketing at the University of Indianapolis and an expert on sports marketing, said there shouldn’t be any surprise there’s a burgeoning market for betting on presidential elections.

“Elections are a horse race. That’s how they’re set up. That’s how they’re covered,” he said.

DeGaris thinks there is much in common between the worlds of sports and politics that make elections ripe for the gambling industry.

“It’s almost like the candidates have their fan bases. You follow your candidate, everybody else is a cheater and you’re honest,” DeGaris said. “Having somebody sit down like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, it’s like a Yankees fan and a Red Sox fan sitting down and talking. There’s not much common ground there.”

DeGaris said that prediction markets can in some respects have more accurate results than public polling.

“For me personally, if I am looking to see what’s going on, I go to William Hill the odds maker,” said DeGaris, referring to the UK bookmaker. “It’s amazing how well he gets odds right.”

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Vaccaro’s take on the Republican candidates after the Fox News debate did not just improve the (unofficial) fortunes of Trump. Odds for Marco Rubio jumped to 10-1 from 20-1; Carly Fiorina likewise did well, going to 50-1 odds from 100-1.

“I have my man Jeb Bush in neutral,” Vaccaro said. The odds for the former Florida governor are 2-1.

Former US senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania wasn’t so lucky. His odds became a long shot post-debate: 250-1 from 50-1, but it’s still early in the race.