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City residents in poll narrowly favor Suffolk Downs casino; vote could be a heavy lift

Boston residents narrowly support Suffolk Downs’s plan to develop a casino at the track, though the intensity of the opposition could make for a tough campaign if the gambling proposal were to face a citywide vote, according to a Boston Globe poll.

Forty-four percent of Boston residents support the development of a gambling resort at Suffolk Downs, the East Boston racetrack that straddles the city line with Revere. The figure includes strong supporters, 25 percent, and those who “somewhat” support the casino plans, 19 percent.

The poll also found 37 percent of Bostonians are against a Suffolk Downs casino, with 28 percent describing their opposition as strong.

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For Suffolk Downs, “it’s a winnable race but a hard row to hoe,” said Clyde Barrow, a casino expert at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

He said the history of casino votes has shown that “those strongly opposed all show up to vote; those who somewhat support it might show up.

“Opposition always tends to be much more passionate on these issues,” said Barrow. “You can’t really feel confident about a casino referendum until you’re well into the high 50s for support.”

No casino project can win a state license until residents of the host community endorse the proposal in a referendum. In large cities, such as Boston, city officials have the option of holding a citywide ballot, or restricting the vote to the ward where the casino would be located.

Suffolk Downs is competing for the single license available for Greater Boston, and has offered plans for a $1 billion casino resort at the track, with partner Caesars Entertainment. The other competitors in Greater Boston are Wynn Resorts, which is proposing a hotel casino on the Mystic River in Everett, and Foxwoods Resort Casino, which has joined a casino venture in Milford.

No public polling has yet been done in either Everett or Milford to determine the level of local support.

The state gambling commission expects to choose a winner by early 2014.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino has maintained that the effects of a Suffolk Downs casino would primarily be felt in East Boston, so only those residents deserve a vote on the plan.

But most of Menino’s constituents disagree: 66 percent of Boston adults favor a citywide vote on a Suffolk Downs casino, while just 27 percent believe East Boston alone should make the decision, the Globe poll found.

Secretary of State William Galvin has warned that limiting the vote to one ward could result in lawsuits from residents of other neighborhoods, who could claim they are being wrongly disenfranchised on a major issue.

The poll of 440 Boston adults was conducted March 21-26 for the Globe by the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire. The margin of error is 4.7 percent.

In addition to the three-way competition in Eastern Massachusetts, four gambling companies are competing for casino development rights in Western Massachusetts and four others have applied for the state’s sole slot parlor license. Commercial casino development is on hold in Southeastern Massachusetts to give the Mashpee Wampanoag time to make progress on a tribal casino in Taunton.

Public opinion in Boston on a Suffolk Downs casino closely resembles the city’s general views on Las Vegas-style gambling.

By 45 percent to 40 percent, Boston residents slightly favor allowing casinos in Massachusetts. Men are more supportive, backing gambling 50 percent to 35 percent, while women oppose casinos, 45 percent to 40 percent.

Nationally, people at the opposite ends of the education scale tend to see the casino issue differently, and that is true in Boston as well.

City residents with post-graduate education oppose a Suffolk Downs gambling resort, 47 percent to 36 percent; those with a high school diploma or less favor the plans, 44 percent to 36 percent.

“A lot of the stronger supporters of expanded gambling tend to be people with high school diplomas, because they’re looking for the jobs,” Barrow said. However, “those are also the least likely people to turn out for an election.”

The Globe poll does not include enough East Boston residents to create a statistically significant sample, though the limited survey results from East Boston are generally in line with the citywide results. A plurality of East Boston residents in the survey favor a citywide vote on a Suffolk Downs casino proposal, said Andrew E. Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center.

“Even the people of East Boston seem to realize that putting a casino at Suffolk Downs is much bigger than a backyard issue,” said Smith.

In a ward-only referendum campaign, Suffolk Downs probably would enjoy a vast financial advantage over opponents, he said, though opponents may be able to organize neighborhood and religious groups into a formidable resistance. “There is a moral aspect of casino opposition that is not there with the supporters,” said Smith.

Smith suggested Suffolk Downs might have an easier time in a citywide vote, appealing to neighborhoods less likely to be concerned with traffic or other potential downsides of an East Boston casino.

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