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Analysis: Deck Is Stacked Against Casino Repeal

Policy scholars often say that implementation is the stage in the policy process when the rubber meets the proverbial road. Passing legislation is just the first step. Figuring out how to implement a policy is when things get complicated.

Since 2011, the state has been attempting to figure out exactly how to implement the law that would bring up to three full-scale casinos and a slots parlor to Massachusetts. If you smell burnt rubber, well that’s just the policy process working its magic.

Massachusetts voters will decide the ultimate fate of the 2011 law in a Nov. 4 vote as backers of Question 3 are seeking to repeal the law.

As it presently stands, voters in West Springfield, Palmer, East Boston and Milford have rejected proposed casino sites, while voters in Springfield, Revere and Everett have approved casino proposals. With rejection of several proposed sites by communities, the anti-casino movement started to gain some traction. Using Massachusetts’ plodding, indirect initiative process, casino opponents waited out an entire legislative session and gained enough signatures to qualify their repeal effort for the Nov. 4 ballot.

Early expectations were that the casino repeal had a chance of passing. A March WBUR poll conducted by The MassINC Polling Group showed 46 percent of Bay State residents in support of casinos, with 43 percent opposed. At the time, the local failures seemed to indicate shifting statewide opinion on casino development. In recent weeks, however, opinion on the casino repeal measure appears to have shifted again. A UMass Lowell/7News poll of 1,624 registered voters that I directed showed the casino repeal failing 59-36, while a WBUR poll the same week showed the measure failing 52-37 in a survey of 700 likely voters.

As we have learned in the last week, polls can certainly be wrong and races can tighten as late-term dynamics shift. However, I would argue that these numbers are actually more depressing for the backers of the repeal. The argument boils down to three major points.

1.  Undecided Voters And The NIMBY Argument

Casinos have been in the news for several years now in Massachusetts. Both recent polls found fewer than 10 percent of voters are undecided on this issue, which means that the space for the campaign to change minds is much narrower even than in the governor’s race, for example, where approximately 1 in 5 voters are undecided.

In addition, the argument that halted casino development in several towns was successful because voters were aware of real local-level implications. As we move up to a larger aggregate population, the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) argument is not nearly as effective. A voter in Lowell will not be living next to a proposed casino in Revere or Everett, and therefore is less likely to be persuaded by arguments about crime and/or traffic congestion in the surrounding area. Perhaps voters in East Boston will still turn out to vote against the measure because of a fear of how a casino in Revere would affect their neighborhood, but overall, the majority of voters is unlikely to be persuaded by NIMBY-like arguments against the casinos.

Proponents of the repeal, therefore, will need to appeal to moral arguments to be successful, but that will be difficult with so few voters reporting that they are undecided on this issue more than two months before the election.

2. Voting 'No' Preserves The Status Quo, And Voters Like That

Historically, since the first initiatives were voted on in Oregon in 1904, only 40 percent of all statewide initiatives have passed. There is a longstanding finding among scholars of the ballot initiative process that voters are more comfortable voting “no” than “yes” on any given ballot initiative, as the “no” side always occupies the space of not altering the status quo. While this might sound like weighty logic for a voter, the exact opposite is true. Uninformed voters will often choose the "no" side absent any other information about what a measure will or will not do precisely because “no” typically means “do nothing.” Earlier polls that showed a closer contest on the casino repeal did not account for the advantage that the “no” side possesses in any ballot campaign; they asked, instead, whether an individual supports or opposes casinos in Massachusetts. The pro-casino side, therefore, is bolstered by the fact that they occupy by the advantageous “no” position on the ballot.

3. 'No' Money Is More Effective Than 'Yes' Money In Swaying Voters

The last point regards the imbalance of money that will be spent in this campaign. The “no” side is financed by wealthy gaming interests that no amount of community organizing will be able to overcome in terms of television, print, online and radio advertising. We’re about to hear a lot about what casinos will do for jobs, the economy and the state budget.

But it gets worse for repeal proponents. Research has shown that ”no” dollars are considerably more effective in persuading voters than ”yes” dollars. In 2012 and 2013, I conducted some experiments on this very idea at both the state and national level. You can read my working paper with Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz of the University of Rhode Island here, but the insight is that when pressed with “pro” arguments on six different issues, voters were unpersuaded. However, when presented with “con” arguments, depending on the issues, voters were moved between 9 and 24 points from a “yes” to “no” position.

Casino repeal proponents are starting from behind. They will be badly outspent by gaming interests in the state, and every dollar they spend will not equal the impact of every dollar spent by the opponents of the repeal. At this point in time, it’s hard for me to imagine a scenario under which the casino repeal is successful, but such a scenario would clearly involve an external shock to this race that would drastically increase the salience of this issue.

Joshua Dyck is an associate professor of political science at UMass Lowell.  

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