Betting on US politics in 1888

The race that year was between Republican Benjamin Harrison and incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland.

JSSP Keith Norman Column Sig

Betting on the presidential election was evidently a thing in Jamestown back in 1888.

A couple of things of note here. What is now North and South Dakota was still the Dakota Territory and residents here didn’t have the right to vote in presidential elections. The race that year was between Republican Benjamin Harrison and incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland.


The Jamestown Alert warned “the unsophisticated citizen who has money to wager” about some of the terms of betting on politics.

If you placed your bet that a candidate would get the majority, your man had to get more votes than all other candidates in the race. If your bet was for a plurality, the candidate had to get the most votes of any of the candidates in the race to win.

“The man who bets on majorities, is a sucker five times out of ten,” wrote the Alert in a front-page article.

Keep in mind that gambling was illegal back in the territorial days so putting some money on the race for the White House was probably a back-alley endeavor. Still, the writers at the Alert wanted to make sure no one placed a sucker bet.

Some gamblers bet on the results of particular states. The states that were solidly Democrat or Republican weren’t in play. It would seem that the states of New York, Indiana and Michigan were pretty much a political toss-up and were getting the most betting action.

“In this connection, it may be added that considerable money has been bet in this city on the outcome,” wrote the Alert.

The race was an interesting one.

Cleveland’s election in 1884 made him the first Democrat in the White House since the American Civil War. Oddly enough, his 1888 campaign included opposition to veterans' pensions.


Harrison, the grandson of a previous president, ran on a platform of maintaining high import tariffs as a way to help the business climate in the country.

Results of the race were pretty much along regional lines with the Republican Harrison winning the north and west and Cleveland the south.

Cleveland won a plurality of the votes so if you bet he’d pick up the majority you were, as the Alert noted, a sucker.

However, Harrison won the electoral college to become the 23rd president of the United States.

Cleveland did win the rematch in 1892 so the Jamestown bettors got another chance. This time, as a resident of North Dakota, they would have a chance to cast a vote for the presidency.

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