Politics

Casino repeal faces long odds

If gambling opponents could pick a political climate for a casino repeal vote, they could hardly do better than right now.

National headlines for the casino industry have been mostly bad this summer. The economy has improved at home, softening the argument for casino jobs. And Massachusetts’ nearly three-year process to license gambling resorts has led to more lawsuits and controversies than actual licenses.

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“I think the anticasino crowd has the most to crow about,” said Paul DeBole, assistant professor of political science at Lasell College and a specialist on gambling regulation.

Yet casino repeal is facing long odds, with time running out.

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Polling suggests Massachusetts voters prefer to leave the 2011 casino law alone, and that Question 3, the casino repeal measure on next month’s ballot, is headed for defeat.

“We don’t see the national headwinds for the casino industry having much impact on the referendum at all,” said Jerold Duquette, a professor of political science at Central Connecticut State University and a Western Massachusetts resident who blogs on Bay State politics.

“The energy against casinos has been NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard] energy, and that can’t really be enough,” said Duquette, which leaves the repeal question “a real long shot” to pass. In the latest Boston Globe poll, 53 percent of likely voters say they want to keep the casino law. Just 40 percent support repeal, and 7 percent are unsure. The number favoring repeal is consistent with Globe polling on the question over the summer. The survey of 401 voters, conducted Sept. 28-30, has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.

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The repeal trailed 53 to 38 percent in a Suffolk University/Boston Herald poll published Monday.

Casino opponent John Ribeiro, chair of the Repeal the Casino Deal campaign, said the state’s anticasino movement is accustomed to being counted out by experts.

“We wouldn’t expect anything less,” he said. “No different than yesterday and the day before, for the past four years.”

Casino opponents went to enormous lengths to get the repeal on the ballot. In addition to gathering tens of thousands of signatures, opponents had to sue, after Attorney General Martha Coakley, now the Democratic nominee for governor, ruled last year the repeal was unconstitutional.

In a highly anticipated case, the Supreme Judicial Court decided in June that the repeal was eligible to be on the ballot. The ruling generated immense initial attention, though repeal advocates were unable over the summer to keep the issue in the forefront of public debate. Underfunded casino opponents needed time to build an organization and raise money. The wealthy casino companies that oppose the repeal were content to lie low during the summer to avoid stirring up anticasino passions, while they quietly assembled a get-out-the-vote network.

A political committee backed by casino companies launched its first TV ad last week, a low-key spot that focused on the jobs an MGM Resorts casino proposal would create in downtown Springfield.

Though the fight over casino gambling has not turned into the spotlight-hogging battle many had expected, a number of elements have gone right for opponents.

Atlantic City, the casino industry’s original expansion outside of Nevada, produced a barrage of gloomy news stories this summer. Gambling revenue has been falling for years in Atlantic City and four of the city’s 12 casinos closed this year, including three within the past few weeks. Most of the blame for Atlantic City’s woes is attributed to too much competition from other casinos in the region, and opponents in Massachusetts have seized on the notion that the Northeast cannot support the casinos it already has.

“The Atlantic City headlines are not necessarily a harbinger of bad news here, but they are an indication of what can happen,” said DeBole.

Locally this summer, the extended battle for the Greater Boston casino license exposed the applicants, Wynn Resorts and Mohegan Sun, to tough criticism, similar to what candidates face in a political campaign. Industry supporters have grumbled for months that attacks against each project would taint the public’s view of both proposals and boost the repeal.

After Wynn won the license on Sept. 16, Mohegan Sun claimed the selection process was “manifestly unfair” and “defective,” potentially undermining public confidence in the choice, and in the state’s ability to regulate the industry.

“All these negative pieces are out there,” said Anthony Cignoli, a Springfield political strategist, assessing the political climate. “It should be easy, you would think, for the [casino opponents] to get out there and utilize all of that, to put it together. But you’re just not really seeing it.”

The Globe poll suggests the public is divided on the choice of Wynn Resorts. Thirty-seven percent approve of the selection, 35 percent disapprove, and 29 percent don’t know, according to the poll.

Boston University journalism professor Fred Bayles, who studies referendums, is skeptical that bad news about the casino industry has much effect on voters.

“I hate to sound cynical and dismissive, but you can never underestimate the inattention of voters to subjects,” he said. “I do not think this is a prime issue in people’s lives, especially when you have some hotter issues.”

He said voters are more likely to be engaged in the debate on Question 1, which would reverse a measure tying the gasoline tax to inflation, an issue that affects every driver in Massachusetts.

“I think if you asked people out on the street right now about what’s happening in Atlantic City, you’d find a fairly low level of understanding,” he said.

The Globe poll generally backed up Bayles’s analysis. Fifty-seven percent of voters say the troubles of Atlantic City have no effect on their opinion of the casino industry in Massachusetts. About 26 percent say the struggles of Atlantic City makes them less likely to support casinos; 14 percent say they are more likely to support local casinos.

Casino supporters also have some structural advantages that may help protect their lead.

The first is the counterintuitive configuration of the casino repeal question:

If you want casinos, you vote no.

Don’t want them? Vote yes.

The side pushing a no vote generally enjoys a built-in advantage in ballot questions, said University of Massachusetts political scientist Ray La Raja.

“Most people, when they’re not sure of something, tend to say no,” he said. “They tend to keep the status quo, so that’s something in favor of the casino industry.”

The industry also has an overwhelming financial advantage in the campaign. The pro-casino political group, Coalition to Protect Mass Jobs, is backed by organized labor and two wealthy casino companies, Penn National Gaming and MGM Resorts, according to campaign finance reports.

Penn is building the state’s sole slot parlor, at Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville. By the time the repeal is decided, Penn will have sunk roughly $100 million into the project. MGM’s Springfield proposal has earned the resort casino license for Western Massachusetts.

Casino opponents say the public polling on Question 3 does not adequately capture their hard-core army of supporters, which last year defeated local casino proposals in referendums in East Boston, Palmer, West Springfield, and Milford, and stonewalled casino developers in other communities before the proposals even made it to a local vote.

An Oct. 1 memo summarizing the repeal campaign’s internal polling, obtained by the Globe, suggests “anti-casino advocates have a slight edge today and are locked into what is a very competitive contest with the casino industry.” The polling was conducted from Sept. 22-24.

“We have the winning message,” Ribeiro said. “We have seen this before in East Boston” and other communities, “where people who haven’t voted in a long time come out to vote against casinos.”

Full poll results:

Summary results (PDF)

Full results (PDF)

Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com.
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