Like some kind of biennial flower — or bad penny, depending on your point of view — the discussion of expanding gambling in Texas has popped up at the edges of the legislative session yet again. Among the latest signs of the return of the gaming issue are two recently released polls, one produced by a coalition of pro-gambling interests and the other by Austin-based KXAN-TV, both of which seem to show substantial support for expanded gambling in Texas under certain conditions.
Taking a second look at the available polling data suggests why gambling expansion has fared so poorly in the Legislature despite seemingly broad public support. It also suggests why the latest effort by gaming promoters to put the matter before the voters could be successful, if, that is, they can get anything out of a Legislature that has one eye on conservative watchdog groups that are dead set against gambling.
The kill card for advocates of gambling expansion seems to be a gap in what we call ‘attitude strength’ — the degree to which people’s attitudes about a subject resist change and influence what they think and do — and how this gap falls along party and ideological lines among Texas voters. In short, voters who oppose gambling have much stronger attitudes than the more numerous supporters of gambling. Consequently, as in so many other key areas of Texas public policy, legislators see gambling opponents as likely to register their strongly held attitudes in Republican primaries.
There is no detailed public data on the attitude strength of public opinion on gambling, but it is plausible to infer that opponents of gambling expansion hold stronger attitudes than supporters. While 64 percent of people may support expanded casino gaming, they’re not likely to vote someone out of office for opposing it. On the other hand, a not-insignificant proportion of those opposed to gambling oppose it on moral grounds. These individuals are probably more likely to write, call, rally and eventually vote against a representative who they view as morally tainted. They are also probably more likely to participate in a primary election that acts as the de facto general in much of the state.
Going back to the University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey from February 2011, if we look at likely voters who identify themselves as strong Republicans or extremely conservative, outright opposition to gaming rises from 8 percent for all registered voters to 14 percent and 22 percent, respectively. Given the makeup of many of Texas’ recently redrawn political districts, it’s pretty easy to imagine why some representatives might balk on expanded gaming. The punishment for inaction is probably nonexistent, whereas a backlash might be lurking among the most conservative voters.
On top of all that, we have to take the private polling on gambling for what it is: a message test. For example, in the private poll mentioned above, one question prompt included the phrase, “Texans lose billions of dollars to out-of-state casinos, and are paying for the public schools and highways in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico…” The results, from a pollster with a good track record, are certainly credible. But the intention of the survey is not to gauge public opinion on the issue, but to test the strength of the pro-gaming arguments put before the respondents without consideration of any counter-arguments. Even under the strongest set of propositions, they found less support for expanded gaming among those whom they have classified as “GOP Primary Voters” than they found among the broader universe of all registered voters.
Similarly, when we asked a question about expanded gambling in Texas on the UT/Texas Tribune poll, we found significantly less support than the private poll (though still a majority), as would be expected based on the question wording (which was itself slightly positive skewed by being put in the context of potential revenue generation).
The takeaway is that a strategy that seeks to provide potentially vulnerable legislators with a degree of plausible deniability makes sense. There’s almost nothing to lose by putting the question to a favorable, though in all likelihood ambivalent, electorate — the voters, and not the legislators, would make the final decision. But given the strength of the socially conservative wing of the Republican Party, coupled with the opposition of radical fiscal conservatives to gaming, a bet on gambling might still be a longshot.
Tribune pollster Jim Henson heads the Texas Politics Project and teaches government at the University of Texas at Austin; Joshua Blank is manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project.