Massachusetts casino polls

Is gaming losing favor in Massachusetts before it’s even begun? Some recent polls suggest it may be. (Image:

A new poll claims statewide public support for casinos in Massachusetts may be slipping. The research – conducted mid-March by MassInc Polling Group on behalf of local radio station WBUR – found that, of the 500 likely voters polled, 43 percent approved of the introduction of casinos to the state, while 46 percent did not.

This is in contrast to a WBUR poll conducted only in January which found that 53 percent were in favor of the casinos, while 39 percent were opposed. Meanwhile, a poll back in November 2013 – conducted by the New England University Polling Institute – found that respondents seemed to be overwhelmingly in favor of the casinos, by a 60-33 margin.

What Gives?

The new findings are fueling speculation that public opinion may force through a new vote that could repeal the 2011 act that legalized casino gambling in the state to begin with. The committee to Repeal the Casino Deal has already filed a petition containing more than the 68,911 verified signatures necessary for the issue to be included on the 2014 state ballot.

Bad Publicity

The Mohegan Sun is currently facing off with Wynn Resorts over the right to hold the single, coveted Greater Boston gaming license, while the MGM is sole contender for the Western Massachusetts license. Meanwhile, Caesars pulled out of the process following a $100 million campaign, and subsequently filed a lawsuit against the Gambling Commission amid unsubstantiated claims of links to organized crime. Could it be that all this bickering has ultimately turned the voters off?

Kathleen Conley Norbut of the Repeal the Casino Deal petition certainly thinks so: “Massachusetts voters are intelligent,” she said. “The more people learn about the impacts, they learn about the nefarious casino industry. The majority will always come to the conclusion that it’s bad for communities and it’s bad for the commonwealth.”

As well as the unflattering images of the casinos being portrayed in the news, there are other issues that may be influencing the pollsters, beyond the common concerns about problem gambling. Many casinos in recently legalized jurisdictions have posted profits well below their projected targets, fueling fears that the proposed economic benefits may be insufficient to offset the perceived negative aspects of casino gambling. There are concerns, too, that favorable tax laws would incentivize a casino like Mohegan Sun to drive customers away from Massachusetts to its flagship casino in Connecticut, although Mohegan Sun executives have strongly denied this.

“There have been a lot of headlines about the underside of this issue and nothing really positive to show for it yet. No voter has gone to a concert or used a slot machine or sat down at a blackjack table yet,” said Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group.

Abstract vs. Real

Western New England University at Springfield professor of political science Timothy Vercellotti – who is also director of the Polling Institute that conducted the original November poll – was more guarded about the findings: “We’re moving into a phase of something abstract becoming something real,” he said, agreeing that the results might be attributable to negative publicity about the casinos, but adding that the respondents to the latest poll may simply be those who are more passionate about opposing casinos, therefore skewing the sample size.

Of course, as we know from recent political elections, polls can be notoriously inaccurate. Even the new findings are hugely debatable. We are told to allow for a margin of error of 4.4 percent, which means that, theoretically, those in favor of the casinos could actually still be in the lead, although by a tiny margin.

Boston Mayor Jumps in the Fray

And as if state resident squabbles about casinos weren’t causing enough strife, Boston’s Mayor Martin J. Walsh is now making some noise as well. Walsh has now secured a potentially landmark hearing with the state gambling commission, following his assertion that voters in Charlestown and East Boston have a democratic right to decide whether casinos can be built in their vicinity, considering the recent declaration that his city is a “host community” to the Wynn Resorts (Everett) and Mohegan Sun/Suffolk Downs (Revere) casino plans.

According to the 2011 Casino Act, host communities are able to demand millions of dollars in compensation from casino developers.

“I’m not looking to kill anything,” said Walsh. “I’m looking for the community, the people of those communities, to decide what they want.”