Most Maryland voters are opposed to legalizing casinos in the state -- even if the gaming houses would create more jobs, a new poll indicates.
With the General Assembly set to take up the issue in January, the poll found voters currently oppose casino gambling by a margin of 57 percent to 32 percent, with the remaining 11 percent undecided.
The nearly 2-to-1 margin of opposition was consistent among every demographic group surveyed for the poll, which was conducted by Mason-Dixon Political Research Media for The Sun and other news organizations.
Black or white, male or female, Democrat or Republican, living on the Eastern Shore or in the suburbs, voters oppose casinos by nearly identical percentages, the poll found.
J. Bradford Coker, president of the Columbia-based firm, said few issues show such solidarity of opinion.
The results are virtually unchanged from a January Mason-Dixon poll, which found voters opposed casinos 59 percent to 36 percent.
"The casino folks have a real uphill battle in public opinion," Mr. Coker said.
While a majority of the poll's respondents said they believe casino gambling "would be good for Maryland's economy," a much larger majority said the potential problems that accompany casinos are a "more important consideration."
Casino supporters said the survey demonstrates only that voters have not yet been educated about the issue. They said the results reflect only a "soft" opposition that can be persuaded.
"This has been the initial position of people in every state that has permitted casino gambling," said Ira C. Cooke, an Annapolis lobbyist representing two casino companies.
"Once you show people that we're talking about limited, tightly regulated gaming and that the state could reap millions, you can change some opinions."
But Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a leader in a coalition of citizens, church groups and business people working against casinos, said the results reflect strongly held beliefs about gambling's ills.
"People deep down know that more gambling would lead to greater problems for our state," said Senator McCabe, a Republican who represents Howard and Montgomery counties and is co-founder of Marylanders Against Casinos. "They know that instinctively, but we have to convince legislators that this is a deeply held, passionate view."
The poll, which was also commissioned by WMAR Channel 2, Washington's WJLA Channel 7 and the Journal Newspapers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, was based on telephone interviews of 821 randomly selected registered voters Wednesday through Saturday of last week. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The survey found that people who oppose casinos do so because they believe gambling is immoral or believe casinos would increase crime, hurt families, be bad for the economy or harm the state's image.
If gambling were restricted to floating riverboats, voters would still oppose it, but by a much smaller margin, 47 percent to 43 percent, with 10 percent not sure, the survey found.
On the other hand, voters apparently don't agree with state horse racing interests who claim that casino gambling would ruin their industry.
A 49 percent to 22 percent majority disagrees with the notion that legalized casino gambling "would severely hurt the horse racing industry."
Legislative leaders said they hope their colleagues will consider the poll's results in context. More needs to be known about the issue before judgment is passed, said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who pointed out that delegates won't have a specific proposal in front of them until the legislature meets in January.
"There is a tendency on the part of a lot of people to short-circuit the legislative process," said the Allegany County Democrat. "At the right time, public opinion will be taken into consideration."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said the poll results should not be an "overriding" factor in the legislature's ultimate decision.
He said the potential economic benefits for an area such as Baltimore should also be a consideration.
"I am not certain a land-based casino is a partial cure or a greater ill, but I do know that on its present course, things are only going to get rougher economically for Baltimore City," the Prince George's County Democrat said.
The results may also demonstrate that casino companies may have made a tactical mistake by investing hundreds of $l thousands of dollars in lobbyists but little, so far, on public education.
Industry observer Ramsey R. Poston, editor of the newsletter Casinews, said that legislators have to detect a greater comfort level from Maryland voters before they can be won over.
"The industry hasn't done a good job of explaining what they're all about to people in Maryland," he said.
Annapolis lobbyist Gerard E. Evans said casino companies intend to invest in a substantial public relations campaign in Maryland shortly.