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Support for casinos dwindles, poll finds

Anti-casino political campaigns across the state during the past year have eroded public support for casino gambling in Massachusetts, a potentially dangerous turn for the industry ahead of a possible campaign this fall to repeal the state casino law, political and casino specialists said Wednesday.

Forty-six percent of likely voters approve of locating casinos in Massachusetts, while 43 percent disapprove, according to a new WBUR survey conducted by MassINC Polling Group. The poll, released Wednesday, shows a significant drop in support for the gambling industry in just the past two months.

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In a January survey, MassINC found that 53 percent of registered voters approved of casinos in the state, while 39 percent disapproved. Other statewide surveys dating to at least 2009 showed much stronger support for the industry, with generally 60 percent or more in favor of casinos.

Support may also have fallen because of high-profile defeats for the industry in municipal referendums and publicity stemming from lawsuits on the licensing process, as well as the lack of tangible benefits so far from the state’s fledgling casino industry.

“People are tired of hearing about it and not seeing it,” said Carl Jenkins, managing director at the financial firm Duff & Phelps, who has studied the state’s gambling market.

The polling trend suggests that a proposed repeal of the state casino law may have a real chance of passing, if it qualifies for the November ballot. Casino opponents have asked the Supreme Judicial Court to overrule the state attorney general’s decision that it was unconstitutional and should be kept off the ballot. The court is expected to decide this summer. Casino supporters, including several gambling companies that want to build in Massachusetts, are opposing the repeal.

John Ribeiro, chairman of the casino repeal effort, said in a statement Wednesday that the drop in support suggests “Massachusetts voters are intelligent, and when presented with the data and facts that casinos do not bring the economic revitalization that they falsely promise, voters stand against the casino culture.”

Despite the possibility of repeal, the state gambling commission is pushing ahead in its licensing process. The commission last month chose Penn National Gaming to build the state’s sole slot parlor, in Plainville. The commission plans to award resort casino licenses for Western Massachusetts in May and in the Boston region in May or June.

Penn has pledged to wage a political campaign against the repeal if the issue makes the ballot. By November, the company probably will have construction workers employed at its Plainville site, which could be a powerful argument to retain the law.

“Some of the promises will start to come to fruition, at least in terms of construction jobs and spending,” said Jenkins. “That may change the conversation and the attitudes.”

Boston College casino expert Richard McGowan said some voters may have been turned off by the results of the political process for approving casinos. Economically distressed cities, such as Springfield, Everett, and Revere, have said yes to resort casinos, while more affluent suburbs have rejected the industry.

“People are wondering about the fairness of this,” McGowan said. “In other words, it looks like poor communities are being stuck with it and wealthier communities are getting out of it. People are starting to wonder, ‘Is this really what this is all about?’ ”

The new poll suggests that people with a lower level of education — high-school or less — approve of building casinos by an overwhelming 61 percent to 32 percent.

However, people with advanced degrees — who are unlikely to be interested in most casino jobs — strongly oppose the expansion of the gambling industry, 60 percent to 28 percent.

The survey also suggests casinos are least popular in heavily populated Greater Boston, where traffic is a daily frustration for many drivers. Forty-eight percent of voters in Boston and the inner suburbs disapprove of adding casinos; 40 percent approve.

The state gambling commission is weighing two rival proposals in Revere and in Everett. The commission’s chairman, Stephen Crosby, declined to comment on the poll.

Springfield political strategist Anthony Cignoli said the shift in public opinion — from generally supporting casinos to more of an even split — has been palpable in his recent study of the electorate.

Cignoli believes numerous municipal campaigns enabled casino opponents to spread an unflattering perspective of the industry, and some people who originally supported the industry in their home towns have become opponents after losing local referendums. “In some places there is a jealousy factor,” he said.

The poll of 500 likely voters, conducted March 14-16, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent, according to WBUR.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark

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