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How political leaders could persuade more Americans to get a covid-19 vaccination

Republicans’ and Democrats’ attitudes have divided by party — but they shift quickly.

- December 21, 2020

Since the Food and Drug Administration approved the first coronavirus vaccine for emergency use, tens of thousands of Americans have been vaccinated — a fact widely hailed as a significant first step toward ending the pandemic. That will happen, experts estimate, when roughly 70 percent of the population becomes immune, whether through vaccination or recovery from covid-19.

But recent public opinion data suggest that between one-third to two-fifths of Americans might refuse. What will it take for enough Americans to get vaccinated that the pandemic could end? My research found that Americans’ attitudes toward getting a vaccine have been profoundly volatile and influenced by political leaders’ cues — and that those leaders could make a significant difference now.

How I did my research

In public opinion surveys conducted from April to December 2020, I found that covid-19 vaccine refusal has become highly politicized. Specifically, I found that partisans’ intentions to vaccinate are volatile and shift as elite Republicans and Democrats disagree about vaccine-related issues.

Over the past nine months, I used Lucid Theorem to survey five nationally representative samples of U.S. adults, totaling 4,998 respondents, or roughly 1,000 in each sample. People who said they leaned toward one party or another were coded as independents. The survey asked respondents whether they were very likely, somewhat likely, somewhat unlikely, or not at all likely to get vaccinated. As you can see in the figure below, early in the pandemic, Republicans’ and Democrats’ attitudes toward being vaccinated against covid-19 have bounced around fairly dramatically.

Data and figure: Matt Motta
Data and figure: Matt Motta

Vaccination attitudes shifted as political leaders from different parties changed their cues

What explains these shifts? In May, majorities of Democrats, independents and Republicans alike told pollsters they wanted to be vaccinated against the virus. Republicans’ interest in being vaccinated dropped off, however, possibly because President Trump steadily insisted that the virus was not a major public-health threat.

However, as the election approached, Trump began to promise his supporters that a vaccine was nigh, and might even be available by Election Day. Meanwhile, in the vice-presidential debate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris said she wouldn’t trust the Trump administration’s assurance that a vaccine was safe — echoing statements made by Joe Biden and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo a few weeks earlier. In recent research, I found that this may have reversed politicization trends: Republicans became more likely to say they would vaccinate, while Democrats’ intentions to do so dropped off substantially.

But with Biden taking office in less than a month, his administration will oversee the vaccination campaign for most Americans. Consistent with the theory that Democrats would trust him more than Trump, Democrats have become much more likely to say they will be vaccinated while Republicans have become much less so.

Apparently, public confidence in coronavirus vaccines is sensitive to how political elites talk about vaccine-related issues. That could be a problem: If partisan conflict discourages enough partisans from getting vaccinated, that could jeopardize population immunity — and covid-19 could continue sickening and killing Americans.

What if the parties come together to promote vaccination?

Social science research in political and health communication strongly suggests that the coronavirus vaccines could be depoliticized. Researchers have found that when political elites, such as elected officials or groups with liberal or conservative reputations, signal that they have shifted to support the facts, partisans are more likely to abandon false beliefs on a variety of issues.

That’s because partisans tend to have higher levels of trust in people with whom they typically agree on politically contentious issues — even when those leaders’ messages may run contrary to the partisans’ earlier beliefs. Such messages could make people more willing to change their minds.

Bipartisan endorsements for inoculating against covid-19 could encourage more people to get vaccinated. Elected Democrats and Republicans might release statements about the rigorous vaccine approval process, go on news shows to discuss the vaccines’ safety and efficacy, or show off injection-site bandages on social media posts, much as they might post pictures of themselves with an “I Voted” sticker.

That may be happening already. Both Biden and Vice President Pence have been vaccinated on live television. Former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama recently volunteered to do the same. And Republican Reps. Peter T. King and Lee Zeldin of New York, both Trump supporters, recently went on record saying they will be vaccinated.

Of course, political disagreements are certainly not the only obstacle to widespread covid-19 vaccination. Public-health research suggests that a constellation of social and psychological factors influence views about vaccine safety. Bipartisan public-health messaging will not necessarily get rid of anti-vaccination attitudes among those whose opposition isn’t closely tied to politics. But unified bipartisan messaging supporting a vaccine could still boost vaccinations — and bring the country closer to ending the pandemic.

Matt Motta (@matt_motta) is an assistant professor of political science at Oklahoma State University.