Wednesday, October 22, 2008

How likely is the big upset?

Last time I wrote, I declared that Obama had the election in the bag, according to Intraders participating in the state markets. Since then, Obama's strength has only solidified. For the last two weeks, Intraders have been saying Obama is the more likely candidate to win in states totalling 364 Electoral Votes.

Today, even if we give McCain every state where Intraders have Obama's chances below 80%, Obama still gets 273 votes and wins. In other words, let McCain keep every red state even if it is 51-49. Further, take FL (where Dems are currently trading at 63), MO (at 67), NV (73), NC (58), OH (61), and VA (78) away from Obama and give them to McCain and Obama still wins.

So according to Intrade's state markets there is basically no chance McCain can put together the Electoral Votes he needs to wim. Indeed, my simulation has consistently been putting McCain's chances at well under 1%.

At the time of my last column two weeks ago, the price on the Obama national contract was about 65, and it has since moved to about 85. From a certain perspective, 99%+ seems too high for the chance of almost anything that is two weeks in the future, and you suspect something must be inconsistent. From another perspective, the best a predictor can do is give you an answer with near certainty well in advance of the event. Intraders in the state markets have basically no doubt.

The action then, is in the question of how many electoral votes exactly will each candidate get. Intrade has a collection of markets for that as well, and through the simulation, we can get a good picture of what the state markets have to say on the question. A trader might look at the national price of 85 on 2008.PRES.OBAMA and figure the price of the Obama wins >270 Electoral Votes ought to be close to the same. Further, a trader might see that Obama is “expected” to win 364 Electoral Votes and suspect that the price of Obama winning > 360 Electoral Votes (or McCain winning > 170) ought to be around 50. Indeed, that is about where the Intrade markets on Electoral Vote counts are trading.

But the state markets have more to say than that. I simulate the joint dynamics of the state markets out to election day and produce a distribution of how many electoral votes each candidate ultimately may win. We can compare that distribution (in pink) vs. the Intrade Electoral Vote Count Markets (in blue), for the Democrat:

And for the McCain, again my results from state markets in pink and Intrade's Elecotral College vote count markets for the Republican in blue:

Fundamentally, the state markets are saying something different than the national markets and the electoral count markets. The state markets are actually implying a quite well-settled race at this point (not much can happen that will actually swing a lot of electoral votes). In the price of the national contracts and in the distribution implied by the electoral count markets, we see that Intraders still demand a significant risk premium for the suspicion that something big may yet happen.

Monday, October 6, 2008

It's in the bag

In my last column, I said there is a >95% chance that if the next month goes more or less like the last three months, Intrade's electoral markets on Election Day will be predicting a victory for Barack Obama. Does Obama really have a >95% chance of actually winning the election?

He may not be far off.

Obama won the Democratic primary largely by working the rules of the contest. He needed delegates in that case, and his team put together a very targeted strategy to get them. Now, he needs electoral votes and he has done the same thing. While his lead in the popular vote is small to moderate, his lead in the Electoral College is actually dominant and very unlikely to be turned.

As of Monday afternoon, Intraders give Obama the edge in states carrying 338 electoral votes. He could lose 69 of those and still win. For example Intrade has FL, VA, OH, NV as the most vulnerable blue states right now.

They could all turn red and Obama still wins.

Intrade markets are historically 100% predictive in US elections when the prices are higher than 70 or lower than 30. If we take the states currently in that range, and add in Colorado, which is at 69 for Obama, we get 44 states that, given the level of volatility and the time left, are unlikely to turn. From those states, Obama controls 273 electoral votes to 163 for McCain (Karl Rove himself pointed this out today).

As Obama needs 269 to win, barring something radical, Obama has it in the bag.

And by the way: of the other 7 states, Obama leads in electoral votes 65-37.

Now, by something radical, I don't mean William Ayers. I mean something with a bigger effect on this race than the financial crisis. The recent past has actually been extremely volatile but has led to a relatively settled situation – I don't foresee a huge upswing in volatility between now and Nov 4th .

I have been using my simulation to jointly project Intrade's state electoral market prices forward to Election Day, then assuming Intrade would perfectly predict each state on Election Day. I have made an acknowledgment that there may be some fallibility in the markets when the price is between 30 and 70. In those cases, I now award the state with a probability matching the projected Election Day prices.

In bottom line terms, that will give the underdog a little more chance to win close states. Given the current landscape, that will help McCain more. Even so, I still see Obama having close to a 97% chance of victory.

Yet the individual market for Obama to win the presidency continues to trade around 65. Is there an arbitrage here? What is the real probability of Obama winning at this point? Let's look at other sources that claim to tell us this. is a well-known site that works with polling data in a very detailed and sophisticated way. They assign an 87% chance to Obama victory. is a similar idea, and assigns a 96% chance. Independent oddsmakers give Obama a 74%-80% chance. If the future is more volatile or more correlated than the past, or if Intrade markets aren't well described by a Gaussian copula, my estimate of 97 may be a few points high, but I am fairly confident 65 is low.

Disclosure: I don't own any of the above securities.

Friday, October 3, 2008


Back in August, it was arguable who was winning the race for president. Unsatisfied with polls-based approaches for a variety of reasons, I turned to the Intrade markets. There are two metrics you can look at to see who traders think is winning at any given time. One is the relative prices of "Obama to win 2008 US Presidential Election" vs. "McCain to win 2008 US Presidential Election." The other is the number of electoral votes Obama and McCain are each expected to win.

Let's focus first on the overall chance of winning. If we look at the relative price metric over the past couple months, we see that Barack Obama has been winning consistently by on average 60/40 except for a brief period in mid-September. For convenience, I'll express the metric as Obama / (Obama + McCain). This is the pink line in figure 1.

In my previous column, I described a system for simulating the joint dynamics of the 51 electoral markets on Intrade forward to Election Day. One can extract from this, what is the probability of Intrade's state market prices on November 4th predicting an Obama electoral victory. That is the blue line in figure 1. In principle, the blue line and the pink line should be roughly the same if you accept the big assumption that the next month may be similar (in volatility and state-to-state correlation) to the last 3 months. As you can see, the simulation has much greater dynamic range than the simple "X to win 2008 US Presidential Election" contracts. The markets react sharply, and this metric reflects that without delay.

Is it credible to say that Obama has a >95% chance of winning the real-world election? He does have a very big lead and there’s not that much time left. But the overall Obama wins the election contract is trading below 70. I will address that in some detail in my next column, but what this really says is there may be significant trading opportunities between the national contracts, the state contracts, and the weekly options.

The other metric we can look at is the expected number of electoral votes for Obama (or McCain). In figure 2, in pink, we see the history of the Intrade electoral vote predictor for Obama, which assigns each state's votes depending on who's contract has the higher price that day. In figure 2, in blue, we see the mean of Obama's electoral votes from my simulation. Typically, these two lines are quite close, which is a good validation of the simulation. The gap is indicative of the predicted average net effect of states flipping from their current status between the measurement date and Election Day. Since the simulated mean is usually below the electoral vote predictor, Intrade's state market traders are implying Obama's lead is a little soft. But the reason the simulation still produces a predicted win for Obama >95% of the time going forward from today is that he does have a really formidable lead in the Intrade state markets.