New poll contradicts earlier casino survey

TWO RECENT MASSACHUSETTS polls on casino gambling produced very different results, but the difference may have more to do with the population being surveyed than any actual change in attitude.

A new telephone poll conducted by the Western New England University Polling Institute indicates that 59 percent of Massachusetts adults support establishing casinos in Massachusetts while 34 percent are opposed. Among registered voters, the split was much the same. The margins mirrored results from earlier surveys by the polling institute dating back to 2009.

The strong support for casinos seemed to undercut an earlier poll conducted last month for WBUR by the MassINC Polling Institute that indicated public backing for casinos was slipping rapidly. The MassINC survey of likely voters suggested a once-large margin of support for casinos had slipped to 46 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed, a 3-point difference that falls within the poll’s margin of error.

Public attitudes on casinos are being watched closely as opponents are hoping to win approval from the Supreme Judicial Court to place a measure on the November ballot that would repeal the state’s gaming law.

Tim Vercellotti, director of the Western New England University Polling Institute, said he believes the difference in the poll results is due primarily to the audience being targeted. His survey targeted adults and registered voters, while the MassINC poll targeted a more narrow universe of voters who say they are likely to vote in the fall.

“We’re looking at two different groups and that’s why we see these different numbers,” Vercellotti said.

Vercellotti said he’s long been suspicious that support for casino gambling is broad but not very deep in Massachusetts. He said one question on his survey seemed to confirm that. He asked respondents to rate how important casino gambling was to them personally. Those who said it was “somewhat important” or “not very important” favored casino gambling by fairly wide margins. But those who said casino gambling was “very important” to them opposed casino gambling by a margin of 57-40 percent.

“Among voters who view this issue as very important to them personally, opposition to casinos is much higher and support is much lower compared to the entire sample,” Vercellotti said. “These individuals may be more motivated to organize and get out the vote if the casino question appears on the ballot in the fall.”

But Vercellotti also cautioned that, in a referendum campaign, the casinos themselves may throw a lot of money into the race and sway voters with their advertising. He concluded that the poll results should not be viewed as a prediction of how voters might respond to a ballot question on gambling.

The MassINC Polling Group is a subsidiary of MassINC, a nonprofit think tank that publishes CommonWealth magazine.

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