Make a Motion to Call the Question 3…
Four ballot questions will face voters’ judgment this November. Not only is this a fairly large amount of questions, but all of them are deep, substantive issues with far-reaching implications. That may be a little bit of an overstatement on some questions, but there is an important slate of issues this year.
For the most part, prognosticators have gotten the fate of the ballot questions right. Question 1, an effort to repeal the gas tax, seems to lack the gas it needs to succeed. Question 3, repeal (or more accurately gutting) of the casino law, has an uncertain fate. Question 4, paid sick leave, looks pretty good. Only Question 2, the expanded deposit on beverage bottles, has had a reversal of fortunes from near-certain passage to possibly veering toward the dustbin of history.
Part of the reason for all these fates are the resources behind one side or the other of each question. Particularly, the fate of Question 3, casino repeal, is worth exploration as it personifies this dynamic.
Repeal the Casino Deal, as supporters of Question 3 style themselves, after getting onto the ballot via the Supreme Judicial Court, seemed to have the wind in its sails. Dwindling Atlantic City casinos, limp revenues among Connecticut’s gaming resorts and the promise of Empire State competition seemingly loaded casino opponents’ guns with high caliber ammunition. Maura Healey distinguished herself in the AG’s race by arguing against casinos, proving that opposition was not the political cyanide pill most Bay State pols assumed it to be.
Then, as the summer came to a close and Massachusetts residents resigned themselves to another torrent of political bric-a-brac, Yes on 3 began to seem more like a hope than an affirmation. Polls vary wildly, but support for the question has flagged. No doubt, the oddity of voting “Yes” as a means of saying “No” to casinos, casts a great deal of uncertainty on the question’s ultimately fate. While it is not casino opponents’ strategy to rely on voter confusion, the data suggests that it may be their best hope.
But why? The reason is apparently money. It is not that the surely-poll tested Protect Mass Jobs No campaign has millions of dollars from casino companies and boots on the ground from organized labor. It does. The No position seems rather stable despite the constant stream of hilariously misleading commercials about the impending bonanza Question 3 would abrogate. If anything, given the gross spending disadvantage, No should be consistently polling sky high. It is not.
The problem is the lack of funds on the Yes side. Supporters of the Yes on 3 campaign appear to believe that they can ride to victory on the free media of the indictment of the landowners of Steve Wynn’s Everett site or the report on the impact on Lottery revenues. That simply is not going to work. The press—and by that we principally mean The Boston Globe and The Republican/Masslive who have written substantive and skeptical (yes The Republican, too) stories about casinos—will not do the work of repeal supporters absent some really compelling news.
The reality is that a good ad campaign can go a long way to changing the public’s perceptions and covert casino agnostics who will vote against repeal because the casino won’t be in their backyard. Even amid the ads chock full of hard hats and the Mystic River, a 30 second ad with a shuttering Atlantic City boardwalk or with charts displaying Detroit casino revenue, ahem, growth could be devastating.
Follow that up with federal indictments in Everett and rumor of federal investigators reviewing Springfield’s casino process for impropriety (not on MGM’s part, it must be noted) and suddenly you might have a contest on your hands. Some may not deem it a completely accurate or fair appraisal, but it would be the No on 3 campaign’s worst nightmare.
No paid messaging has fallen on the pro-casino side’s head.
Why could this work? Because it already has on another question. The Bottle Bill, Question 2, was doing quite well until opponents of the question, a cabal of soft drinker makers and supermarkets, began airing commercials about the law. Specifically, the commercials said community curbside recycling exists in all communities (it doesn’t) and unredeemed deposits will just go into the maw of Beacon Hill (they won’t). Ads casually distort other facts about littering, particularly in urban centers. The Bottle Bill is not doomed, but its prospects are far dimmer than they were in the spring.
Like Bottle Bill backers, casinos advocates started with a simple, even common sense message. In casinos’ case, it was jobs, aided—implicitly—by the fact that only a distinct minority of the commonwealth’s 351 communities would actually host a facility. Casino supporters’ message remains undisputed on air.
During the individual referenda for community host agreements, casino companies practically demanded gaming opponents come up with an alternate economic plan. Because the development of these casinos will have a proportionately smaller impact on the entire commonwealth’s population as opposed to the population around a gaming site itself, supporters of repeal could sidestep that matter and instead focus on other things.
The meager success of the gaming industry outside Las Vegas, legal and ethical questions and the social impact of casinos could dominate the repeal campaign statewide in a way they may not have in local referenda. Indeed, those arguments (and a healthy dose of NIMBYism) clearly won the day in several communities where casino proposals crashed and burned at the polls. But, those issues will not dominate if all voters ever see on the telly are cranes set against a triumphant, hopeful orchestra.
Supporters of Question 3, opponents of casinos, whatever label fits best cannot fight something with nothing. Church groups, like Roman Catholic bishops, reportedly might get into the act to push repeal across the finish line. Indeed, as Springfield considered and later approved MGM’s host community agreement—against which this blog opined—the most forceful opposition came from the Council of Churches. It did not stop the agreement, but given more time, it might have shifted the momentum.
Still, absent some funding surge on opponents’ behalf, at this stage it may take something like a prayer to reverse this march to expanded gaming.