People who criticize politicians for paying too much attention to the polls may have a point.

According to online wagering sites, would-be public servants could've predicted election outcomes a lot better by looking at the betting odds.

With the 2002 congressional election mere weeks away, campaign managers may heed that advice by perusing the Iowa Electronic Markets, one of the operations with the most experience processing wagers on U.S. voting results.

The site -- a nonprofit endeavor run by the University of Iowa's Tippie School of Business -- has provided a market since 1988 for traders to buy and sell contracts predicting U.S. election results. Currently about 17,000 people are placing trades for the November election.

"The central premise is that markets can reveal information about future events," said Forrest Nelson, an economics professor at the university and board member of the Iowa Electronic Markets.

So far, Nelson says the market has proven fairly accurate in predicting presidential elections. In the last four presidential contests, traders' predictions for candidate vote totals have come within 1.5 percent, on average, of the actual results.

Measuring the accuracy of congressional election predictions is a more complicated matter, Nelson said, because wagers are placed only on which party will gain a majority in each chamber. Because the election hinges on multiple state races, odds are harder to set.

In the November elections, the most favored outcome on the Iowa exchange is maintaining the status quo, with Democrats keeping control of the Senate and Republicans holding a majority in the House.

Traders view the second most likely result as a Republican majority in both chambers. A Democrat-controlled House and Senate ranks third, while a Republican Senate and Democratic House is seen as the least likely outcome.

The ranking hasn't fluctuated greatly since the market opened for election-related trading in July. Traders briefly pushed up the odds of a Republican Senate victory after Sen. Robert Toricelli (D-N.Y.) dropped his re-election bid. The odds reverted back to their earlier levels when former Sen. Frank Lautenberg stepped in to take Toricelli's place.
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