Meet the GOP voters who could decide whether the U.S. reaches herd immunity

But unlike many at-risk Americans seeking safety and an end to the pandemic, Margaret refuses to get a coronavirus vaccine.

“There’s too many unanswered questions,” said Margaret, who agreed to be interviewed only if her last name was withheld because of concerns she might be harassed. Margaret also said she’s fearful of possible side effects, like the headaches that some people have gotten from the second shot. “I’d just as soon as not go through that,” she said.

Margaret is a Republican — a fervent Trump supporter — and polls have repeatedly found that nearly one-third of Republicans share her staunch resistance to the coronavirus vaccine, although for a variety of reasons. Some, like Margaret, worry the vaccines were developed too quickly. Others argue without evidence that many vaccines are unsafe or will make them sick. Still more echo Donald Trump’s repeated contention the coronavirus threat is overblown and simply don’t trust the government’s involvement.

“I had a slight fever of 99.5 for a day and a half,” said Steven Rousey, a 43-year-old aircraft mechanic in Georgia who describes himself as a “Libertarian Republican,” and said tests confirmed that he caught the virus in September. “I don’t think it was the boogeyman they made it out to be.”

While other groups have also been wary about the shots, for instance, communities of color, polling shows that hesitancy has started to wane while GOP resistance to the vaccine remains relatively high. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last week found that 28 percent of Republicans said they would “definitely not” get the vaccine, and another 18 percent said they would “wait and see” before getting a shot. As a result, millions of Republicans could remain unvaccinated, a potential roadblock to efforts to achieve the high levels of immunity needed to stop the virus in the United States — an irony that isn’t lost on Trump officials who worked to end the pandemic.

“It’s a little bit confounding,” said Paul Mango, who helped lead the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed initiative that sped coronavirus vaccines to market in less than a year. “I really don’t understand it, to tell you the truth. To me, this was the most spectacular medical development in our lifetimes.”

Some of that hesitancy is embodied by Trump himself, who spent years raising questions about vaccine safety, dismissed the value of flu shots while president and quietly got vaccinated against the coronavirus in January, shortly before leaving the White House — opting not to publicly disclose or televise the decision.

The Post spoke with more than two dozen people about Republicans’ vaccine hesitancy, including Trump voters balking at the shots, analysts who have studied vaccine concerns, and health officials from the Biden administration, counties that voted for Trump and the de Beaumont Foundation, a public health group that has teamed up with longtime GOP political strategist Frank Luntz to win over vaccine skeptics.

“I’m determined to crack this code,” Luntz said, detailing his plans to bring together a focus group of Republicans next week, trying to craft messages to convince conservatives to get the vaccine. “Their decision affects everyone.”

But some of the Americans that Luntz and others are desperate to persuade say they’ve already made up their minds.

“If the coronavirus is supposed to kill you, it’s going to kill you even if you hide under a rock and wear a mask,” said Gary, a 73-year-old retired pipe fitter in West Virginia who voted twice for Trump, and who asked for his last name to be withheld in order to speak freely about his beliefs. “Personally, I don’t think it’s any worse than the flu.”

‘This is a flu’

It was Trump who most famously compared the coronavirus with seasonal influenza as the virus spread across the world, and public health officials decried his efforts to minimize the threat.

“This is a flu. This is like a flu,” Trump said on Feb. 26, 2020 — before more than 500,000 Americans would die after contracting the virus in subsequent months.

“I think the president set the tone early on by downplaying the coronavirus or comparing it to the flu,” said Robert Coon, a GOP consultant in Arkansas who’s conducted coronavirus-related surveys for clients. “For a lot of people, the first impression was that it’s not that big a deal, and it’s kind of hard to come back from that.”

Even after Trump was stricken with covid-19 last October, he told Americans the threat was overblown and again contrasted the virus with the flu — a connection that pollsters and analysts say is evident in Republican voters’ responses.

“The attitude that the seriousness of covid was being exaggerated in the media tracks well with how President Trump talked about it when he was in office,” said Liz Hamel, who helps lead KFF’s polling on coronavirus. “His message ‘you shouldn’t be worried about it’, his relentless positivity, is reflected in the attitudes of many Republicans who don’t want to get the vaccine.”

The recent revelation that Trump chose not to get the coronavirus vaccine on camera was criticized by public health experts, who said that he missed an opportunity to signal the vaccines’ safety and benefits to millions of his supporters, unlike then-Vice President Mike Pence, incoming President Biden and Vice President Harris. Trump’s unannounced vaccination also came as a surprise to four former senior administration officials working on its vaccine efforts.

“A reporter asked me about it this week, and it was the first I heard of that,” Mango said.

Trump did repeatedly invoke his administration’s success in developing coronavirus vaccines, but “I don’t think the support from the president was so much to convince people to take the vaccine, as it was about the political benefit,” said Coon, the Arkansas-based GOP consultant. “I don’t think it was as focused on the public health benefit as it should have been.” The administration’s promised public service announcements touting vaccines also never materialized.

And it wasn’t until last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, that Trump first explicitly instructed conservative voters: “Go get your shot.”

“I wish it had been earlier,” said a former senior Trump official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He’s the only one that can get to these people.”

“For them, he’s the pope and the chief rabbi rolled into one,” Luntz agreed. “I don’t need a focus group to tell me that nothing would have a greater impact than a Donald Trump PSA.”

Finding credible messengers

Public health experts say they’ve begun implementing strategies to reach out to communities of color, worried their historic distrust of the medical establishment might lead to low vaccination rates. But there’s been less focus on winning over Republicans. The head of the de Beaumont Foundation said that lack of action prompted him to enlist Luntz, the longtime communications consultant and pundit, to come up with messages to reach conservatives.

“[About] half of Republicans say they are unsure or unwilling to take the vaccine and that hasn’t changed since December,” said Brian Castrucci, the foundation’s leader. “I was alarmed when I saw that.”

Luntz said he planned to convene about 20 people from more than a dozen states for a virtual focus group next Saturday — all two-time voters for Trump who haven’t yet decided on whether to get the shots — and also bring in prominent Republicans “to see if they can fashion a language that will change their minds.” Luntz declined to identify who would be involved, but said he’d then test the focus group’s results through polling after the event.

The Biden administration is also researching how to reach holdout Republicans, said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss in-progress efforts. “The most trusted messengers are doctors, nurses, faith leaders,” the official said, suggesting that Biden officials would also appear on conservative networks like Fox News. “We want to talk everybody,” the official added.

The quest to find a credible messenger who can reach Republicans also has been complicated by the cool relationship between Biden’s White House and the one it replaced. Biden’s team has repeatedly criticized Trump officials’ handling of the outbreak, and moved to quickly usher offstage many of those involved, including coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx and Surgeon General Jerome Adams.

“If people are saying they’d listen to Jerome Adams, I’d call Jerome tonight,” said Castrucci. “This isn’t selecting teams for dodgeball, this is about the health of the nation.”

Mango, the former Trump official, said that at 62, he’s waiting his turn for the vaccine but offered to “do it on camera, if The Washington Post wants to send a photographer.”

‘They simply don’t trust the government’

Luntz said he’s uncovered differences between young Republicans who don’t want to get the shots, often arguing the virus’ threat is overblown, and older conservatives worried about possible side effects. But all share a common worldview: “They simply don’t trust the government to do the right thing,” he said.

Hamel, the KFF polling expert, concurred that skepticism of government has grown among conservatives. She pointed to significant declines in Republicans’ trust of institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and officials like Anthony S. Fauci, the government infectious-disease expert, that paralleled Trump’s own attacks on them last year.

For instance, about eight in 10 Democrats and Republicans told KFF in April 2020 that they trusted Fauci to provide reliable information about the coronavirus. But by September, KFF pollsters found, less than half of Republicans said they still trusted Fauci, while Democrats’ trust in the scientist had only increased.

“That shows a pretty clear relationship between the messaging coming out of the White House and the stance that Republicans were taking on trusted public health messengers,” Hamel said.

Yet vaccine-hesitant Republicans defy easy categorizations.

Marianne, a teacher and Ph.d in her thirties in Florida, described herself as a “classic conservative” who refused to vote for Trump. But having already contracted a mild case of the virus in October, likely giving her lingering immunity, she believes that getting vaccinated is unnecessary.

“I feel completely confident weighing my own decision-making and understanding of scientific studies, and weighing the real risk and relative risk,” said Marianne, who asked for her last name to be withheld in order to speak freely about her beliefs. She noted she reads research on the virus and has followed the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency-use authorization process for the vaccines.

“My husband makes fun of me, ‘why did you have to become an expert in this too?’” she added. “Well, it was a long pandemic.”

Meanwhile, Clarence Cooper, a 64-year-old retired mortician in Florida who doesn’t want the vaccine, gets his coronavirus information mostly from talk radio, has yet to be infected and is a loyal Trump supporter. “I voted for him the second time, I’d vote for him for the third time,” Cooper said.

Still, Trump’s recent exhortation to get the vaccine didn’t motivate him because their situations are so different, Cooper added. “He needs the vaccine — he’s been risque, not wearing masks,” Cooper said. “I’m kind of like a cave man … I don’t go out for 10, 11 days at a time … and when I do, I wear two or three masks, wash my hands, carry hand sanitizer, wipe the shopping carts.”

Cooper said he’s also heard conspiracy theories on talk radio about the vaccine’s development. “I don’t want to be a pin cushion,” he said.

Such resistance, multiplied by millions, could complicate the push to reach herd immunity. “I don’t think you’re going to end up with 70 percent adoption in some states, where you’re not going to have the majority of the biggest political party,” said Coon, the Arkansas-based consultant. The proportion of people who need to be immune to reach herd immunity with covid-19 isn’t known but experts estimate it between 70 to 85 percent.

It’s too early to see those views play out. Health officials in eight rural counties that Trump won handily — in states ranging from Georgia and Pennsylvania to Texas and West Virginia — said that demand is still outpacing scant supply.

“We’ve had a huge outpouring of people wanting the vaccine here,” said Deborah Baker, the health director of the Pulaski County Health Center in Missouri where Trump carried the county by a 46-percentage-point margin. “I don’t think the political environment has mattered,” she added.

But Republican resistance could become more apparent when vaccines become more available this spring. “The thing that’s most concerning to me right now is that share of ‘definitely not’ is not budging among the public overall, including Republicans,” said Hamel, the KFF polling expert.

One of those “definitely not” is Margaret, the Oklahoma retiree, who said that she needled her son over his vote for Biden so much that they didn’t speak for a few days. Yet for all her admiration of the former president, she drew no confidence in the vaccines developed under his administration.

“He didn’t develop the vaccine. Scientists did it,” she said. “I know one thing: Biden didn’t do it.”

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