“Do you think the podcast is really weird?” Starlee Kine asked as we sat across a picnic table a couple of hours before the last presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. “We keep getting told it’s really weird.”
She was not talking about her “Mystery Show” podcast, voted among the best of 2015. Kine meant “Election Profit Makers,” the limited-run show she produces for David Rees, the political cartoonist who hosted the National Geographic series, “Going Deep,” and his childhood friend, Jon Kimball, documenting their exploits trading 2016 election futures on the online prediction market, Predictit.
Ostensibly a guide to making money off the election, the show is more than anything else a labor of love between friends, a diary of coping in an election year filled with bilious public discourse, and, wonder of wonders, an actually funny podcast about politics. It is also a little weird.
“Election Profit Makers” features Rees and Kimball, who grew up in North Carolina, talking about their secret high school band (neither would share details with this reporter), the virtues of Gainesville, Florida, and one-sided beefs with FiveThirtyEight and Talking Points Memo, all mixed in with advice about negative risk and prediction markets. “I would say ‘personal’ or ‘intimate,’” Kine mused, still on the show’s tone, musing.
“I wish they would say ‘lucrative,’” Rees responded.
“Election Profit Makers” has no official sponsors — the major podcast conglomerates took a pass — and neither Kine nor Kimball nor Rees know how many listeners they have. “They’re always like, ‘Jon, figure this out,’” Kimball said incredulously. “I don’t know how to figure this stuff out!” Kimball’s MO is data-driven straight man — his lifelong fascination with infrastructure projects is a frequent subject of ribbing — to Rees’s zany fast-talking kid on the playground.
Kimball is the show’s muse, the first of the three to encounter Predictit. Tall and lanky with the slightest patina of Carolina drawl, owner of a neon green parakeet named Disco, he got into Predictit during the primaries and started spending, he told me, “five to 10 hours a day” on the site. His Predicitit habit spilled out during a catch-up phone call with Rees, who sensed an opportunity for a podcast and also, Rees said, “a good excuse to talk to [Kimball] every week because sometimes he wasn’t good about returning my calls.”
Kine came on soon after. “At that point my first thought was, ‘we’re going to ruin her career,’” Kimball said. The podcast launched its first episode July 19 and as its hosts continually remind listeners, it is not much longer for this world — production, and betting, stop Nov. 8.
The concept of election speculation, the basis for “Election Profit Makers,” is nothing new — InTrade was the political betting darling of the 2012 elections, but the site was shut down in 2013 following regulatory issues in the U.S. With 50,000 users in the United States, Predictit has about the same number of users as InTrade did at the height of its 2012 powers, but its market is more regulated than its out-of-business predecessor. InTrade’s markets were flush with cash — the company reported that its users in 2012 bet $230 million on the presidential election — and it showed President Obama with lower chances to win than forecasting models did throughout the election. That led to speculation from some that Mitt Romney supporters were flooding certain markets. “We kind of wanted to eliminate that possibility,” said Chris Chidzik, a data analyst at Predictit. “So there’s a maximum of $850 on any particular contract.” Predictit also characterizes itself as an educational resource; it provides the data it gathers on prediction markets to academics under the auspices of the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
The site has been able to chart the inflection points of the 2016 election year with its trades; the day of the Indiana primary, when Donald Trump all but clinched the Republican primary, saw the site’s biggest day of trading, at 6.3 million shares. The daily average now is about 1.2 million shares traded. Election Day, of course, is the big payday for many Predictit users. Kimball said he stood to make about $3,000 if all goes his way on Nov. 8.
“It depends on where the Electoral College goes,” he said. “If Arizona or Georgia goes red, I’m still OK, but if both of those go red or if one of those and Utah goes, I’m not in good shape.” He and I sat in front of his computer, studying comment chains, where the full force of what it’s like to be enmeshed in recreational betting on the election comes home to roost. A couple of users dominated the thread.
“When these guys show up in your market, you’re about to lose big,” Kimball said. “They’ve figured out Quinnipiac is about to drop a number or they’ve figured out how to get into the website by guessing the URL if the press release isn’t out yet but [the poll is] on the web.”
Although Predicitit didn’t give specific demographics on its users, Chidzik said Washington, D.C., was one of the site’s biggest cities for users. It’s a haven for those who might describe themselves as political fanatics game to channel their knowledge and anxieties into something productive and, they hope, lucrative. Looking back at his trade history, Rees said, “has been a great way really to quantify my irrational exuberance and also my irrational despair.”
“It’s a marker of time in a way,” Kine said, agreeing. “If we do this betting stuff, it’s not a complete waste of time.” Plus, she added, “We’re online all day anyway. We might as well click different buttons.”
Kimball seemed to be over the site as a coping mechanism, though. “I think it helped in the beginning and it was a great distraction,” he said. But, “the drug is not working for me anymore.” He said he’d swear off Predictit once the election ended, though the site will continue operation past Nov. 8. A Democrat who’s volunteered for campaigns before, Kimball said there’s an inevitable letdown when the excitement of a political year ends.
“This year it’s going to be double because it’s going to be the end of the election and then end of Predictit and the end of the podcast,” Kimball said, getting little quieter and pausing to consider what would fill his time.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m excited about it because I’m tired, but I wonder if I’ll get depressed afterwards, just going back to nothing really.”