Candidates gambling on the White House

As t

he US presidential campaign gathers pace, Gambling Insider considers the gaming industry's role in the race for the White House

That the first US Democratic presidential debate took place at the Wynn Las Vegas, the flagship property of casino magnate Steve Wynn, was perhaps surprising, given the businessman’s previous criticisms of the incumbent Barack Obama, which have extended to major issues such as healthcare and the economy. That such a prominent and significant debate was held at a major Las Vegas casino resort should, however, come as less of a shock. In fact, the setting is actually rather appropriate, given the undoubted relevance of the gaming industry to the 2016 election campaign and the numerous connections between the two.

Seeking to underline gambling’s pre-election pertinence is the American Gaming Association, which in the past year has been pushing a major initiative in conjunction with the presidential campaign. Gaming Votes seeks to ensure that White House candidates understand gambling’s “vital role in providing middle class jobs and driving economic growth” while also educating casino industry employees on the hopefuls’ respective political positions on gaming.

To that end, AGA president and CEO Geoff Freeman has written to all candidates encouraging them to “take a stand in support of gaming”. Describing Nevada as an “important battleground state”, he tells the candidates it's “imperative that you learn about modern casino gaming, a $53bn industry responsible for approximately 425,000 Nevada jobs and nearly $8bn in taxes”. The letter’s recipients are advised to talk to elected Nevada officials, visit casinos or suppliers and meet with people that directly benefit from the industry.

The focus isn’t purely on Nevada either. Last October the AGA assembled Senator Cory Gardner, Congressman Scott Tipton, Denver-area business and community leaders, and testing engineers at the home of Gaming Laboratories International in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, for a tour of the lab and roundtable discussion. “We aren’t your grandfather’s casino industry, but a nationwide economic engine that provides high-paying Colorado jobs in a diverse range of fields,” said Freeman. “While most Coloradans don’t see the casinos every day, the industry makes significant contributions to the state and its residents for education, tourism and more.”

When drilling down to consider the specific gaming issues, discussions and references that have featured in the presidential race to date, we find our attention drawn mainly to the Republican Party. During the second GOP debate from Simi Valley, California, hopefuls Jeb Bush and Donald Trump become embroiled in a tetchy exchange over the latter’s alleged desire to bring casino gambling to Florida. Their disagreement, part of which is repeated here, made headlines in the US.

Bush: “He wanted casino gambling in Florida...”
Trump: “I didn’t – ”
Bush: “Yes, you did.”
Trump: “Totally false.”
Bush: “You wanted it, and you didn’t get it, because I was opposed to – ”
Trump: “I would have gotten it.”
Bush: “ – casino gambling before – ”
Trump: “I promise, I would have gotten it.”
Bush: “ – during and after. I’m not going to be bought by anybody.”
Trump: “I promise, if I wanted it, I would have gotten it.”

As for where the truth of the matter may lie, fact-checking website concluded the following: “We didn’t find that Trump directly petitioned the state for gambling, but there’s a pile of evidence that Trump was pursuing a deal to operate casinos on Seminole land in Florida. And at the same time, Trump gave money to Bush and the state party during Bush’s 1998 race for governor.”

That forthright exchange saw both men state their view and hold their ground. However another party candidate, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, was rather less receptive at the following debate, hosted at the University of Colorado, when a moderator raised the issue of the regulatory status of daily fantasy sports. Christie, who has been attempting to overturn a federal ban outlawing land-based New Jersey sports betting, had this to say about the definition of DFS: “Are we really talking about getting the government involved in fantasy football? Wait a second. We have $19 trillion in debt, we have people out of work, we have ISIS and al-Qaeda attacking us, and we’re talking about fantasy football? Can we stop? Enough on fantasy football, let people play. Who cares?”

While the potential identity of the GOP nominee naturally dominates any discussion of the party's affairs, there remains a very prominent, pertinent and currently unanswered question relating to the Republican race: Who will receive the support of billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson?

Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson is reported to have ploughed around $150m into the 2012 election, including $30m and $15m for the respective campaigns of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. There has been much debate as to who Adelson might back with his bucks this time round, with recent reports suggesting Marco Rubio is the front-runner for a major windfall.

Adelson is understood to be regularly visited and telephoned by Republican hopefuls – hopeful of both the party's nomination and the casino mogul’s millions. Such suitors include Rubio who, it has been suggested, even requests Adelson’s advice on certain issues. This approach, along with his support for core Adelson issues such as a ban on online gambling – Rubio co-sponsored anti-internet gaming bill RAWA – has led to reports that he will be the greatest beneficiary of an Adelson donation.

The US gambling industry isn’t going to decide the 2016 US presidential election, and nor would it claim to – although super-rich CEO Sheldon Adelson has as good a chance as most of helping dictate the destination of the Republican nomination. However, gaming does clearly have a role to play in the process, even beyond Adelson’s millions, whether through the economic impact of the casino sector, as outlined by the AGA, or the individual issues that have arisen, and will likely continue to arise, at occasional intervals during the campaign. Indeed the gaming industry will remain relevant right until the very end, as the final presidential debate ahead of the 2016 election will take place at the Thomas & Mack Centre on the campus of the University of Nevada, just minutes from the Vegas Strip.

The gaming stances of selected presidential candidates

Hilary Clinton (D)
Back in 1984, as first lady of Arkansas, Clinton undertook a speaking tour to oppose casino gaming in the state. However in 2000 she supported plans for casinos in both the Catskills and Niagara regions. She said of the latter: “[I]f Niagara believe[s] that a casino would help attract more tourists back to what really was the tourism capital of America for so many decades, I would support that.” Clinton voted in favour of UIGEA in 2006 but in 2008 indicated support for a study to determine whether internet gaming could be regulated.

Bernie Sanders (D)
Back in 2006 Sanders not only supported UIGEA but also voted in favour of an amendment – ultimately unsuccessful – that would have banned all online gaming-related activities, removing certain exemptions for skill-based activities.

Marco Rubio (R)
Rubio has co-sponsored RAWA, which would ban gaming on the internet, speaking of his “long history of opposing the expansion of gambling” and his belief that internet gaming is, for the most part, “a tax on the poor and does little to develop the economy”. However he later stated that the element of skill involved in online poker “distinguishes it a little bit”. In 2009 he described efforts to expand gambling in Florida as immoral and “fool’s gold”.

Donald Trump (R)
Trump founded Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts but has not been directly involved with the company, now called Trump Entertainment Resorts, since 2009, although he reportedly received stock in return for the continued use of his name. Of the three Atlantic City casinos once owned by the firm, Trump Plaza closed in 2014, Trump Taj Mahal remains, and Trump Marina is now the Landry's-owned Golden Nugget Atlantic City. In 2004, Trump purchased 10% of the Riviera hotel-casino in Las Vegas but sold the stock nine months later.

This article appears in the January/February edition of Gambling Insider magazine
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