There’s an element of truth to what Christie is saying; to wit, much of the hesitation among Republicans stems from a lack of confidence in government. It’s not correct to say the hesitance is a function of government insistence on the urgent need for more Americans to be vaccinated.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that Christie is right, that Republican resistance is a function of an energetic effort by the government to encourage vaccinations to happen. It’s safe to say that this effort increased once President Biden was inaugurated, given that the final weeks of former president Donald Trump’s administration were mostly overwhelmed by his false claims of election fraud. Trump himself was vaccinated in January, but he didn’t tell anyone about it.
In other words, if Christie’s hypothesis that Republican objections are a function of overbearing government actors, one would assume that those objections increased after Jan. 20 of this year.
But they didn’t. In fact, the percentage of Republicans who say they will not be vaccinated for the coronavirus is slightly lower than it was under Trump.
The lines above show the average of polling from the prior three weeks in Economist-YouGov polling. In November and December 2020, 38 percent of Republicans said they would not be vaccinated. By May, with cases declining nationally, that figure dropped to 26 percent on average. In recent weeks, it has ticked back up to about 30 percent as views of vaccination have flattened across the board. At best, we can say that Republican vaccine hesitancy dropped a bit under Biden; at worst, it didn’t change much.
(It is, of course, true that non-Republicans have expressed some hesitancy about being vaccinated. Christie’s comments, though, were specifically predicated on members of his party, and Republicans have consistently been a group that makes up a disproportionate percentage of the vaccine hesitant.)
That pause in recent weeks is reflected in the flattened rollout data from the United States. Biden hoped to have 70 percent of American adults with at least one dose of a vaccine by July 4. Three weeks later, we’re only at 69 percent — not nice at all. After seeing the most successful vaccine rollouts in the world, stagnating vaccination rates in the United States have meant a number of other countries have surged past us.
Again, though, there is an element of truth to Christie’s presentation. It is the case that many Republicans are responding to government messages in rejecting vaccinations: the message promoted by Trump for more than a year that the pandemic was nothing to worry about. When he transitioned from advocating for containment measures in March 2020 to calling for the economy to reopen broadly in mid-April, that message stuck.
Trump was elected in part because Republican voters viewed government with deep skepticism. As president, he leveraged that distrust to cast valid criticism as Deep-State hostility to an outsider. When the pandemic emerged, Trump rapidly decided to try to downplay the virus to get Americans back to normal economic activity, aiding his reelection bid. He disparaged government expertise and experts, and he embraced various miracle cures that he hoped would reassure people that all of this was almost over. The message, over and over, was that the pandemic was not a big deal and there was no need to work to counteract it — in fact, that efforts to counteract it were part of entrenched political efforts to take him out. So, even as he has tried to take credit for the vaccines, he had already inoculated many Republicans against trusting them or viewing them as necessary.
The question of how to encourage more vaccinations among Republicans is a complicated one. It is very convenient, though, for Republicans to point the finger largely at non-Republicans.
Later in that show, Christie did suggest that the message should come from outside the political world.
“I think politicians have to say what they need to say, but they’re not the persuasive ones,” he said. “It’s the medical community and people who have had covid who can tell them what it’s like to have it.”
We can set aside that his initial objection to government actors was that they weren’t even trying to persuade anyone. The problem with this formulation, of course, is that the medical community has been saying this for months. But they are trying to make progress against the robust head winds generated by Trump and reinforced by conservative media such as Fox News, which is far more likely to air interviews with vaccine-hesitant physicians than vaccine-embracing ones in its most-watched shows.
There is a partisan problem here. Christie understands that and even points in the right direction — but still ends up pointing the wrong way.