COVID-19 has now claimed the lives of 1 million Americans – a grim milestone made worse by the fact that perhaps a third of those fatalities could have been avoided. Estimates suggest that more than 318,000 deaths from the disease occurred in people who had access to vaccines but did not choose to receive it.
With such a devastating pandemic in the country and the world, why would so many Americans give up on a potentially life-saving vaccine?
One major answer to this question is – as it is in America today – partisan politics.
Since vaccines for COVID-19 first became available, polls have consistently shown that Democrats are far less likely than Republicans to want to be vaccinated or vaccinated. According to monthly surveys conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, this partisan gap between May 2021 and April 2022 has averaged more than 30 percent.
But the story is more complex and broader than it first appears. We know that party and ideology are responsible for many differences in the lives of Americans.
Our research finds that not only is party affiliation a powerful predictor of willingness to vaccinate, it also contributes to other attitudes that promote or inhibit immunization desire, giving it additional potency.
pull of bias
In two surveys conducted in March and June of 2021, we found that party affiliation influenced COVID-19 vaccination preferences independently of certain normative effects such as education, age and race. This means that the party alone can help determine whether a person has received the vaccination.
However, we also found that bias has an additional effect on vaccination status and willingness. This is because it contributes to other factors that also influence willingness to receive vaccination, and therefore “indirectly” contributes to desire as well as directly.
These indirect factors include the effect of favoritism on one’s concern for themselves contracting COVID-19; concern for others who contract it; trust in the government; trust in scientists and medical professionals; And the conspiracy theories surrounding the vaccine – namely that the vaccine would put a tracking microchip in the body and that it could cause sterility.
Party affiliation influenced Americans’ attitudes in each of these areas, which in turn influenced a person’s desire to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. It basically multiplies the effect that party affiliation has on vaccination.
Republicans and Democrats haven’t always felt differently about potentially life-saving vaccines.
A review of historical public opinion trends during other health crises shows that in 1954, Republicans were almost equally — only 3 percentage points less — as Democrats to say they were as willing to receive the then-new polio vaccine.
The vaccine hesitancy gap between the parties for the Asian flu vaccine in 1957 was somewhat larger, but still a far cry from the gap it is today – Democrats were 9 points more likely to receive that vaccine. Democrats were 4 points more likely to get the vaccine than they were for the swine flu vaccine in 1976.
But since 2000, there has been a double-digit partisan gap in willingness to accept other vaccines to address public health crises. When George W. Bush’s administration raised the possibility of reintroducing the smallpox vaccine in 2002, Republicans were 11 points less likely than Democrats to say they would get the vaccine. During the 2009 swine flu pandemic, this gap increased to 15 points. Most recently, the initial response to the promise of a new COVID-19 vaccine in a Gallup poll in July 2020 produced a 34-point margin: 81% of Democrats said they were likely to get a vaccine, compared to only 47% of Republicans.
While there is no way to tell with certainty that Republicans are dying from COVID-19 at a higher rate than Democrats as a result of these discrepancies, there are numbers that suggest it. ABC News analysis shows that once vaccines became readily available, states that voted for Donald Trump in 2020 had an average 38% higher death rate due to COVID-19 than states that did not. Voted for Biden.
Partisan differences in vaccine hesitation can be traced to a wide variation in each party’s approach to science.
Poll data shows that in the 1970s and 1980s, Republicans were consistently more likely to report much greater trust in the scientific community than Democrats.
In the mid-1980s, however, prominent Republican leaders began to publicly dislike scientific input on public policy issues—initially about the acid rain debate, then expanding to other topics.
Over time, these messages discrediting science and scientific opinion on public policy influenced public opinion within the parties.
In the early 2000s, the parties began to switch positions. Since 2008, Democrats have displayed consistently greater confidence in science, with the biggest difference on record — 30 percentage points — in the most recent poll measuring it in 2020.
The path from widespread mistrust in science to hesitation towards vaccines may be a long history, but it’s fairly straightforward. Scientists are the ones who research and develop vaccines, while scientifically trained doctors and nurses administer them. The most prominent figures in the media advocating for vaccination are those from the scientific community – including, in particular, Dr. Anthony Fauci. Republican voters were already tempted to rely on these figures, based on years of party leaders’ rhetoric.
Our own research shows that citizens who do not trust scientists and those who do not trust medical professionals are less likely to be vaccinated and less willing to consider doing so in the future.
Since these trends are now more prominent in the Republican Party than in the Democratic Party, it helps to address the overall partisan gap in COVID-19 vaccination and mortality rates in red and blue states.
Even as COVID-19 becomes less deadly, experts warn that this is not the last viral pandemic we will face.
Elected officials and other policy makers planning for future threats would be wise to take into account the depth of the ongoing partisan divide over vaccination.
For example, while state and federal officials make it a point to conduct special outreach to boost COVID-19 vaccination rates in low-income communities and communities of color, special outreach may also be appropriate based on partisan affiliation. Furthermore, such outreach needs to consider that a major obstacle to overcome among Republicans is a lack of trust in medical professionals in particular – and science more generally.