Betting on Trump

Last time we looked at the United States presidential contest, when Nikki Haley was about to declare her candidacy for the Republican nomination, I expressed the view that Donald Trump’s chance of again winning the nomination was slim. I pointed out, though, that the betting market did not yet bear that out, with Trump and Florida governor Ron DeSantis (who is not yet officially a candidate) being equal favorites.

This week I chanced to look at the odds again and discovered that there’s been a substantial change, but not in the direction I expected. At Sportsbet today Trump is a clear favorite at 6-5 on, ahead of DeSantis at slightly more than 5-3 against (last month they were both 7-5). Haley has dropped further back to 17-1. Maxim Lott and John Stossel’s aggregator tells the same story: Trump is given a 50.9% chance of being the nominee, with DeSantis 33.9% and daylight to Haley on just 3.7%.

There’s a long way to go before voters have to make any actual decisions; the Republican Party is planning for its first televised debate in August, with the first delegates (in Iowa and New Hampshire) to be chosen next January. But after the way in which November’s congressional election seemed to burst the Trump balloon and make DeSantis the front-runner, it’s interesting to see that process go into reverse.

Lott and Stossel’s graph shows the very sharp fall in Trump’s position in November, after which DeSantis spent about two months as favorite before an almost equally abrupt turnaround at the end of January. There’s no obvious event correlated with that; the polls continue to favor Trump in much the same way as they have all along (as one would expect from his vastly superior name recognition).

It may simply be that Republican punters, having been prompted to look at DeSantis for the first time, toyed with the idea for a while and then decided that he’d been over-sold. For what it’s worth, I think they’re half right. I don’t think DeSantis ever warranted all the enthusiasm of three months ago, but I don’t think that conclusion helps Trump much: if DeSantis isn’t to be the successful anti-Trump, someone else will be.

The punters, however, don’t seem to see it that way, and I’ve been wrong before. Certainly there are some pundits telling us that Trump is on his way to the nomination: here’s Ana Marie Cox in the New Republic, for example, arguing that the media have failed to learn the lesson of the 2016 contest. But a lot has changed since 2016, and while I agree that Trump shouldn’t be written off, I think he would require an extraordinary amount of luck to beat whoever the front-runner among non-Trump Republicans turns out to be.

If that non-Trump is DeSantis, then we know pretty much what his strategy will be: to stay as close as possible to Trump in policy terms, offering Trump supporters all the same positions but without Trump’s personal drawbacks. That strategy was on display this week, when DeSantis, having previously been a supporter of aid to Ukraine, back-pedalled on the issue, describing the war as a “territorial dispute” and saying it was not a matter of vital interest to the US.

That brings him into line with Trump’s view. It’s not a popular view within the Republican establishment, but DeSantis knows that if he’s running against Trump he doesn’t have to worry about them – they’ll support him anyway. His goal is to peel off as many Trump supporters as he can; after he’s won the nomination, and certainly if he then wins the election, there’ll be plenty of time to change tack again.

Ukraine, of course, was not happy, particularly since there’s general agreement that if he’s the nominee, DeSantis has a much better chance of becoming president than Trump would. If Vladimir Putin was thinking about maybe trying to cut his losses in some way and compromise on his Ukrainian objectives, the thought of a Republican presidency and a cut-off of American aid might induce him to hold on instead.

It’s 22 months until a new president would take office, and there’s no guarantee that Putin can hold out that long in any case. But it gives the Ukrainians grounds to hope that Trump can maintain his recent momentum and again be the – losing – nominee.

PS: Politico now has a very good story on Republican attitudes to Ukraine, in the shape of an interview with Anders Rasmussen, former secretary-general of NATO.


3 thoughts on “Betting on Trump

  1. I think he would require an extraordinary amount of luck to beat whoever the front-runner among non-Trump Republicans turns out to be.

    The chances of somebody beating Donald for the Republican nomination are clearly going to be higher if there is somebody who emerges early and remains stably the clear non-Donald frontrunner. This isn’t something that has to happen, though: it didn’t happen in 2016. If there’s one non-Donald Republican who scores 30% (let’s say) in opinion polls consistently for three months (let’s say) at some point before (let’s say) March, that person will have a much better chance of beating him than if nobody achieves anything like that: but maybe nobody will achieve anything like that, it’s not a given.


    1. Thanks J-D; yes, that’s quite right. The difference from 2016 is that a lot of people at that point just didn’t take Trump seriously – they’re not likely to make that mistake again (but they may make others).


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