Last week, conservatives criticized Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala D. Harris for saying she didn’t trust President Trump on the vaccine. Harris said she worried health officials “will be muzzled, they will be suppressed, they will be sidelined” during the vaccine approval process. (Harris did say she would trust the vaccine if Anthony S. Fauci gave it a thumbs up, and the party’s nominee, Joe Biden, has said he would take the vaccine immediately, even if doing so would “cost me the election.”)
Now Republicans are attacking a top Democratic Senate candidate, North Carolina’s Cal Cunningham, for saying Monday night at a debate that he would be hesitant to take the vaccine. Cunningham’s opponent, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), shot back: “We just heard a candidate for the U.S. Senate look into the camera and tell 10 million North Carolinians he would be hesitant to take a vaccine. I think that is irresponsible.”
Trump campaign legal adviser Jenna Ellis went after the Democrats for these sentiments.
A spokesman for the conservative group America Rising called Cunningham’s comments “insanely reckless and irresponsible.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) echoed that, saying the Democrats “are the party of anti-vaxxers.”
And Matt Whitlock, a top National Republican Senatorial Committee aide, in referencing a new poll that showed vaccine skepticism, tweeted that “Democrats anti-vaccine rhetoric has successfully scared people into being skeptical of a lifesaving vaccine.”
But that poll doesn’t exactly suggest the Democrats are the anti-vaccine party. And in fact, polling has repeatedly showed Democrats, however much they might mistrust Trump personally about this process, are actually significantly more likely to take a vaccine.
The poll cited, from NBC News and SurveyMonkey, showed 88 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters said they don’t trust what Trump says about a coronavirus vaccine. But that’s just about what Trump says. The poll didn’t ask about health officials who would be required to sign off on approving the vaccine.
And indeed, the poll also showed just 14 percent of Democrats said they wouldn’t take the vaccine, compared with 47 percent who said they would. (The rest were unsure or didn’t answer.) By comparison, Republicans were about evenly split on whether they would take the vaccine, with 33 percent saying they wouldn’t and 35 percent saying they would.
A poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation last week showed a similar partisan split. When asked specifically about a vaccine becoming available before Election Day — an aggressive timetable — Democrats said 50 percent to 46 percent that they would take the vaccine. Republicans, though, said they wouldn’t take it, by a 60-to-36 margin.
The question from there is why people wouldn’t take the vaccine. While Democrats may be more likely to be skeptical of the vaccine because of the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus, Republicans may simply not believe they need it, given polling has regularly shown them to be less concerned about the virus as a whole.
But a Washington Post-ABC News poll from a few months back actually suggested skepticism of the coronavirus vaccine ran stronger in the GOP. The poll showed Democrats said they would probably take a vaccine, by an 81-17 margin, while Republicans said they would probably take one by a much smaller 58-40 margin. (This poll asked people which way they leaned, rather than allowing “not sure” response.)
When asked why they answered as they did, 19 percent of Republicans — about 1 in 5 — said the reason they wouldn’t take the vaccine was mainly that they didn’t trust vaccines in general. Among Democrats, that number was 11 percent.
In other words, there were more Republicans against getting the vaccine because of their skepticism of vaccines even than Democrats who said they probably wouldn’t get it, period — 19 percent to 17 percent.
This is an older poll. Importantly, it came before the vaccine conversation really ramped up and before Trump’s most recent comments, which included promising at the Republican National Convention that there would be a vaccine by year’s end.
There’s certainly a debate to be had about the appropriateness of this kind of rhetoric among Democrats.
On one hand, there is ample evidence of Trump leaning on apolitical health officials to approve treatments for the coronavirus in search of a quick fix — both on hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma. Trump’s promise of a vaccine by year’s end is also controversial, given potential vaccines are still in trials and you never know how those trials will pan out. Health officials have been more skeptical about Trump’s timetable. To the degree there is skepticism about this process, Trump’s very public and sometimes private maneuvers to bend health officials to his will have invited it.
On the other hand, health officials and the companies involved will ultimately have to approve the vaccine, believing it to be safe and effective — with much higher stakes than with emergency authorizations for hydroxychloroquine and plasma. And whatever has preceded today, injecting doubt into that process could lead people not to take it, which with a safe and effective vaccine could unnecessarily prolong the situation. Biden’s very different answer from Harris’s speaks to how dicey this kind of thing is, and Cunningham has also clarified his comments. Given vaccines need to be broadly deployed to be effective, politicians must choose their words extremely carefully.
But when it comes to the bigger barrier to deploying a vaccine broadly, these polls suggest it’s Republicans’ skepticism — whether that skepticism is about the true coronavirus threat or about vaccines more generally.
And there’s one very prominent Republican who has fed into both of those, a man who has regularly and deliberately downplayed the threat of the coronavirus and who for years boosted the discredited theory that linked vaccines to autism. His name is Donald Trump.
Update: One Republican who has been urging his party’s base to get vaccinated, while acknowledging GOP reluctance, is Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). Barrasso, who is a medical doctor, wrote in an op-ed last month: “A Washington Post-ABC poll in June found that a quarter of Republicans said they definitely would not get a coronavirus vaccine. They may be skeptical of the vaccine itself, or believe they’ll never get infected,” Barrasso said.
He also noted that Trump administration critics might also worry about the vaccine being rushed, adding: “My message to the doubters is simple. For your health, the health of your family, and the health of the country — get the vaccine.”