BY CYNTHIA ROLDAN and JEREMY BORDEN

croldan@postandcourier.com jborden@postandcourier.com

COLUMBIA - South Carolinians let their conservative colors fly when asked about taxes and gambling in a new Palmetto Politics poll.

A poll of 1,000 of the state's likely voters asked if they supported or opposed three issues that have been raised by the legislature in Columbia: the legalization of online gambling and medical marijuana, and increasing the sales tax in favor of eliminating the income tax.

None of the results were surprising to experts, given the way in which each question was asked. Plus during midterm elections, the electorate tends to be more conservative. Of those polled, 57 percent said they considered themselves conservatives when thinking about politics.

Online gambling

It was no surprise to College of Charleston Political Science Professor Gibbs Knotts that in a state where large percentages of residents identify as Protestants or conservative Protestants, gambling did not sit well. What did catch him off guard was that the question specifically addressed online gambling, and still 68 percent opposed its legalization, while 17 percent supported it. Fifteen percent were undecided.

"I think that gambling doesn't sit well with a large percentage of the people in South Carolina for moral and religious reasons," Knotts said. "The fact that over two-thirds of the people oppose legalizing online gambling would make it very difficult for folks in Columbia to pass that."

Knotts suggested asking the question with a beneficial tie, such as using cash generated from online gambling for education or another popular program.

Pollster Jim Lee said voters tend to look at these issues through the prism of "what's in it for me and is there a reason to oppose this."

"Online gambling is not an issue that the general public, in my opinion, has a lot of familiarity with to know if it's really a net gain or net loss for the state," Lee said. "Most people really don't see a reason why they should really say yes to that question unless there's some carrot there."

Plus, unlike medical marijuana, which has received so much attention through the testimony of those who have benefited from it, online gambling is not an issue that has received much media attention.

Medical marijuana

On the heels of a legislative session and a June Democratic primary question about medical marijuana, voters are beginning to accept the idea, the poll found.

Among those polled, more than half, 53 percent, support medical marijuana, while 36 percent oppose it. Ten percent were undecided.

Ever since Washington state and Colorado allowed recreational use of pot - a more far-reaching and controversial prospect - medical marijuana has also gained traction. Among its biggest proponents are patient advocates, who say medical marijuana has an untold number of benefits and can alleviate suffering. Advocates want South Carolina to become the first Southern state to join the 22 other states and the District of Columbia that allow for medical marijuana.

The medical establishment, however, is largely opposed. Medical organizations say marijuana remains illegal under federal law and has not been sufficiently tested.

The Statehouse was buzzing about the issue during its session this year. A late start on an effort to pass a bill that would allow for so-called CBD oil to be used as treatment especially for epilepsy gained traction and was passed.

Other polls have showed an even higher acceptance for medical marijuana. Lee said that the Palmetto Politics poll would skew more conservatively because it polled only those who are likely to vote.

In the poll, younger voters tended to support medical marijuana by a two-to-one margin, he said, meaning the issue is unlikely to go away. "You see a big dichotomy between older voters and younger voters," he said.

Sales tax vs. income tax

The participants of the poll seemed most divided on whether they supported increasing the sales tax as a way to eliminate the income tax, with only 40 percent saying they were in favor of the measure.

Of the remaining participants, 34 percent said they opposed the idea, while 26 percent said they were undecided.

Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, has been pushing for the elimination of the personal income tax, without raising the sales tax. But if there was a tax to increase, the sales tax is the most equitable, she said.

"Everybody pays sales tax," said Shealy, adding that includes out-of-state visitors.

Knotts said it's obvious that low taxes are a big priority in the Palmetto State. The sales tax affects everybody, but it's a more complex policy issue.

A closer look at those polled revealed the answers depended on the segment of the population. Republicans were more likely to support the idea than Democrats.

"There's certainly an education that needs to happen there so that people can understand if they are winners or losers in this plan," Lee said. "Lower income families, according to census bureau reports, spend a higher percentage of their disposable income on necessities and items that presumably would be subject to higher sales taxes. As a result, they're not sold on the trade off."