WBUR Poll: Bostonians Back Olympic Bid, But Also Want A Referendum

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Boston Mayor Martin Walsh speaks during a news conference earlier this month, after Boston was picked by the USOC as its bid city for the 2024 Olympic Summer Games. (Winslow Townson/AP)
Boston Mayor Martin Walsh speaks during a news conference earlier this month, after Boston was picked by the USOC as its bid city for the 2024 Olympic Summer Games. (Winslow Townson/AP)

A new WBUR poll shows that although a majority of Bostonians support a 2024 Olympic bid, an overwhelming number of residents want a referendum on the issue.

Three-quarters of poll respondents said residents in Boston and surrounding towns should vote on whether to host the 2024 Summer Games.

“People want the ability to have a say and that goes even for supporters, they want the ability to vote,” said Steve Koczela with The MassINC Polling Group, which conducted this survey for WBUR (topline resultscrosstabs).

The poll response is in stark contrast to the city’s plans. Mayor Marty Walsh has said there will be no referendum; he made that clear in a press conference the day after Boston was chosen as the United States Olympic Committee’s golden city for 2024.

At that same news conference though, Walsh also promised transparency.

“Are we just gonna ram it down people’s throats?” he asked. “Absolutely not. We’re gonna go out and talk to the people of Boston. I’d be willing to bet if you took a poll today, the majority of Bostonians are excited about this bid.”

The WBUR survey asked Bostonians the very question Walsh dared us to ask: Would you say you’re “excited” about the Boston area hosting the Olympics in 2024? And 48 percent of city residents said, indeed, they are excited, while 43 percent said they’re not excited.

“It’s both pretty close and not a majority,” Koczela said. “It does in a sense call into question some of the more optimistic statements that the mayor has made.”

But when the question was worded slightly differently, the city seemed to have more Olympic fans than foes.

Fifty percent of respondents in Boston said they “support” the Games, compared to 33 percent who “oppose” them. If you examine the Boston region as a whole, that support grew slightly to 51 percent. (The WBUR poll surveyed both Boston residents and the “Boston area,” defined as communities inside Route 128).

But pollster Koczela says neither margin is as large as supporters would hope.

“You have more supporters than opponents, but it’s nowhere close to the level of support you’ve seen in other successful Olympic venues in the past,” he said.

In London, 68 percent of people strongly supported or tended to support the 2012 Olympics, according to polling from the International Olympic Committee (see page 108 here). And in Rio de Janeiro, a whopping 85 percent of people supported Brazil’s bid for the 2016 Olympics, according to another IOC poll (page 88).

Koczela says the Boston bid needs more backers to win over the IOC. The IOC picks the winning city, and it tends to conduct its own public opinion poll as part of the evaluations.

Koczela says the main explanation for the relatively lukewarm Boston Olympic support in the WBUR poll seems to be public funding.

“One of the fears is that we’re going to have a great event and we’re going to be stuck with a huge tab at the end of it,” he said.

Mayor Walsh and Olympic organizers insist the Games will be paid for with private money.

“We are not going to be using taxpayers’ money to be building venues in the city of Boston, the commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Walsh said in a news conference earlier this month.

But it seems many Bostonians don’t believe those promises.

A majority — 57 percent — said they think taxpayer funds will be required. (That number is 53 percent in the greater Boston area.)

This skepticism is an issue the group No Boston Olympics has been tapping into for months.

“Olympics do force you to build a bunch of stuff,” the group’s co-chair, Chris Dempsey, said in an interview with WBUR last month. “But it’s stuff that you don’t really need. It’s a velodrome, an aquatics center and a temporary 60,000-person stadium that’s going to be bulldozed once the Games are over. We’d much rather focus on core infrastructure and schools and health care infrastructure.”

Dempsey said he’s concerned Boston’s real needs will be overlooked while the city focuses on throwing a party 10 years down the road.

No Boston Olympics wants to stop the Olympics in its tracks, possibly through a ballot initiative or some legal action.

But in the politics of Boston 2024, Koczela says there’s another factor at play.

“One of the other things we found in this poll that’s worth mentioning in the context of the politics around this is that Mayor Walsh is extremely popular,” he said.

Walsh’s approval rating is 74 percent in the city of Boston. That’s as high as the late Thomas Menino was at the end of his reign.

“Walsh starts with a lot of political clout, a lot of political capital to spend,” Koczela added.

And it appears Walsh may have to spend some of that capital to persuade Bostonians to get “excited” about the Olympics.

Step 1: His first public meeting about the Olympics is next week at Suffolk Law School.

Methodology: The WBUR poll surveyed 507 registered voters between Jan. 13 and Jan. 15. The poll has a base sample of 407 residents in the entire area, including Boston, with an additional 100 voters living in the city of Boston. So between the base sample and the oversample, a total of 215 Boston voters were interviewed.

The Boston area is defined as communities inside Route 128 or straddling that corridor.

The margin of error for the full sample is 4.9 percent and the margin of error for the Boston statistics are 6.7 percent.

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