By Ros Krasny
(Reuters) - Opinion polls come and go, but for those with money on the line Mitt Romney is now a heavy favorite to win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination and go on to challenge President Barack Obama.
Two electronic markets that allow wagering on real-world events have the former Massachusetts governor well ahead, days before the first votes are tallied in a months-long series of state elections to pick the Republican nominee.
The Iowa Electronic Markets, or IEM, on Friday showed a bid for Romney to win the nomination at 0.779 and an offer at 0.790, meaning expectations for his victory are 78.3 percent, against about 51 percent at the start of December.
IEM has been operated by the University of Iowa since 1988, chiefly as an educational and research project. Real money is on the line, albeit not exactly at Las Vegas, or Wall Street, levels. Trading accounts can be opened for $5 to $500.
Romney's closest Republican challenger is currently "none of the above," at 8.2 percent, followed by Texas Representative Ron Paul and former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 6 percent range.
Intrade, a Dublin-based prediction market, shows Romney with a 77.4 percent chance of capturing the Republican nomination, a new high in the current election cycle.
The exchange offers contracts on various current events, from Obama's approval rating to who will Herman Cain endorse in the Republican race, to which film will win this year's Academy Award for best picture (hint: "The Artist").
BETS ARE FOR IOWA TOSS-UP
Both exchanges provide real-time snapshots of which candidates are gaining or losing ground, without the built-in biases and randomness of opinion polls.
For Iowa, current prices suggest that Tuesday's caucuses are still too close to call, but with Paul favored for a strong showing, and Romney gaining momentum.
On IEM, Romney's chances of finishing in the top two in Iowa had fallen to 30 percent in mid-December from 87 percent a month earlier. As of Friday, though, betters predict Paul and Romney will finish one-two in Iowa, not necessarily in that order.
Bets on Iowa at Intrade have fluctuated, but now show Romney with a 46 percent chance to win against Paul's 38 percent. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has rallied to a 12.8 percent chance of winning, from just 2 percent a few days ago.
Intrade also reflects the current sentiment among political pundits that a surprise win in Iowa could energize the Romney campaign and set up an early knockout.
It shows a 33 percent chance that Romney will sweep the first five Republican nominating contests - Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada - against about a 12 percent chance at the start of December.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)