Chattanooga native hits jackpot betting on Trump win
By MILLICENT SMITH
Nov. 24, 2016
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — While most Chattanoogans were placing their votes on Election Day, one Chattanooga native was placing his bets.
Wearing an overcoat to shield him from the mist in Dublin, Ireland, 42-year-old attorney Robert Barnes walked up to the counter of Paddy Power, a sports and gambling franchise. He pulled out 30,000 euros, and bet it all on Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
The odds were 4 to 1.
All day, while Americans waited in lines at polling places, Barnes stood in European betting lines until his pockets were empty and his hopes were high.
Barnes grew up in East Ridge with the deck stacked against him. He credits his working-class background as a source of his profitable prescience. With his winning Trump bets netting him a high six-figure payout, Barnes also earned the attention of national pollsters for his accuracy in identifying the voting trends most of the media ignored. Now Barnes is hoping he can use his winnings and skills to return to his first passion: populist politics, a belief in the rights of common people.
Sean Trende, senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics, met Barnes in a class on populism at Yale University.
"I'm from Oklahoma and we kind of bonded in that sense," Trende said. "I think that just about everyone in that classroom came from a working-class background, which was unusual at Yale. I think (Barnes) had some good (election) insight that a lot of people missed because he has this passion for populism. It was more than just seeing what he wanted to see, it was seeing what other people weren't willing to see."
That insight is what gave Barnes the upper hand on Election Day.
"(It was) like being in on a special secret usually reserved for the privileged few, but this time reserved for working-class folks," Barnes said of placing his bets and calling the election.
It's a class of people Barnes knows well.
From the age of 5, Barnes would rise at 4 a.m. to deliver The Chattanooga Times with his father, Walter. Then the two would take a nap and wake to deliver the Chattanooga News-Free Press in the afternoon. Barnes recalled a time his father forgot to wake him for the morning route.
"I remember waking up and standing under the street light with my blanket when I was 5 or 6, waiting for my dad. And I remember the cop cars coming," Barnes said. "And, (my dad) drove back and was agitated, but he said, 'From now on, I will never leave you again.'"
But when Barnes was 11 days from his 12th birthday, his father died of a heart attack.
Already living below the poverty level, Barnes and his five siblings then had only their mother's small income for support.
Despite hard times at home, Barnes excelled at school, earning state debating titles while attending Grace Baptist Academy. As a sophomore, Barnes was awarded a scholarship from the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation to attend the private, all-boys McCallie School.
After graduating, Barnes went to Yale but left in protest over what he viewed as out-of-touch elitism.
Before leaving, he wrote a scathing op-ed in the Yale Daily News.
"What I remember most is when (Barnes) left Yale, he wrote one of the greatest op-eds in the Yale Daily News," Trende recalled. "It was like 'Trumpism' 25 years ago, telling the Democrat progressive 'Yalies' that 'the whole world doesn't see everything the way you do.'"
In January, Trende wrote about the alienation he observed as a Yale undergrad in "Why Trump, Why Now?" for the RealClearPolitics website. In the piece, Trende described the growing divide between what he calls cosmopolitanists and traditionalists and recalled his own experience of the rift.
"I can think of numerous events from my Yale undergraduate days, which today we might have labeled 'micro aggressions,' that encapsulate the differences (in the U.S.)," Trende wrote of questions he received from other students, "Some were small and innocent (Do you have electricity and/or ride horses in Oklahoma?). And some were grotesque (the teaching assistant who found out my father served in Vietnam and immediately asked if he had nightmares from the horrible things he must have done)."
Barnes read Trende's article and reached out to his former Yale classmate to predict a Trump victory based on his own experience of the Trump phenomenon at a rally in Las Vegas.
"I thought it was going to be a little Lynyrd Skynyrd kind of crowd. But, when I went there, it was just the opposite," Barnes said, "The people were all really friendly, really sociable, polite. It was then I realized, these are not the people who were bullies all their lives. These are people who had been bullied all their lives. And that's what none of the media understood."
But before he was willing to play the Trump card, Barnes wanted to feel sure of his investment.
Barnes is a civil rights and tax attorney representing high-profile clients like Wesley Snipes, and he prides himself on bringing his analytical skill to his hobby of political gambling. He took that skill to the battleground states to see if his Trump hunch was right.
"I wanted to tighten down the hatches and see it from every possible way," Barnes said, "So I hit the road."
Barnes attended the Democratic and Republican national conventions and traveled to small towns in between.
"If Hillary campaigned there instead of among Starbucks gentrified kids, they would have seen Trump coming 10 miles away," he said.
After that road trip, Barnes knew he had a winner in Trump. And for once, the odds were in his favor. The more people discounted Trump, the higher the odds.
"After the road trip, I just watched in amazement as the odds climbed and climbed," Barnes said.
With those high stakes, just before Election Day, Barnes traveled to Europe, where it is legal to bet on the election. He placed his bets and settled into a Dublin Airbnb apartment to await the results.
When Wisconsin was called for Trump and pundits realized Trump had won the presidency, Barnes' phone was full of congratulatory texts.
"I tell you, Robert was one of the first people I thought of when Wisconsin came in," Trende said. "So, hats off to him. He took some flak this election cycle, so I'm glad he could cash in on it."
Trende is quick to point out that RealClearPolitics has a strict no-electoral- betting policy, and, as a journalist, he can't bet on the election.
Other journalists feel the same. Bloomberg reporter Leonid Bershidsky interviewed Barnes over the summer.
"I admire Barnes for his intellectual courage and his ability to insulate himself from all the noise," Bershidsky said while pointing out that as a journalist he cannot bet on the election. "I'm a journalist and I should have been better at it. So, next time, bet with Barnes."
And, in the Dublin apartment as congratulatory texts filled his phone? "All I could do was laugh," Barnes said.
Laugh he did, all the way to the bank. Though Barnes won't disclose his total winnings, he will admit he made in the high six figures.
"We are just about coming to terms with the fact that Donald Trump will be taking up residency in the White House," said Liam Glyn, spokeswoman for Boyle Sports of London, a gambling franchise. "Just like Brexit, we got it wrong again resulting in a large six-figure payout on Trump."
But for Barnes, this bet was not all about the Benjamins. It was about people like his father.
"This payday affords me the freedom to return to my roots, to become an equalizer in law and public life for the Walter Barneses of the world," Barnes said.
Trende predicts the odds are in Barnes' favor for a political future.
"Look, there are not many people who can claim they got the Trump phenomenon right, top to bottom," Trende said.
"So I think if he wants to get into consulting, if he wants to run campaigns, you know he has made a bit of a name for himself. He'll have a nice little cushion for that."
Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, http://www.timesfreepress.com