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How Republican leaders could motivate their voters to get vaccinated against the coronavirus

Our research found an argument that boosts Republicans’ willingness to get vaccinated.

A protester holds a sign at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on Sept. 24. (Caitlin O'Hara/for The Washington Post)

As the pandemic rages on, many Republicans have refused to get vaccinated. Last week in the New York Times, David Leonardt and Ashley Wu showed that people in Republican-leaning states and counties are dying at much higher rates than in Democratic areas — likely because Republicans’ vaccination rates are so much lower.

Some Republican leaders, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are trying to encourage Republicans to get the shot. Recent research finds that leadership can indeed improve Republicans’ attitudes toward vaccines. But if even former president Donald Trump can be booed at a rally for recommending vaccination, other Republicans may hesitate to push their voters too hard, lest stridently anti-vaccine Republicans challenge them in their next primaries.

So what could Republican leaders do to boost their supporters’ vaccination rates?

Though recent research finds that it’s difficult to persuade vaccine skeptics, our research revealed one possible option: Remind Republicans that their choices might have electoral consequences.

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Republican voters don’t want Democrats to win

Plenty of American pundits and politicians lament the extreme antipathy between the country’s “red” and “blue” voters, along with what political scientists call “negative partisanship,” or siding with a party because of extreme dislike for the other side. We wondered whether Republican leaders could encourage vaccination by urging followers to remain healthy enough to get out, vote, beat the Democrats, and thus avoid the anguish of losing an election.

That’s hardly far-fetched. With tens of millions of U.S. covid-19 cases reported and more than 700,000 dead, the pandemic could indeed shift the electoral map — something Philip Bump recently examined here at The Post.

Here’s how we did our research

Between Sept. 22 and 23, we surveyed a nationally representative sample of approximately 1,200 adult partisans in the United States, obtained via Lucid.

We randomly divided respondents into two different groups. One group read a message from their party’s national committee warning that if they didn’t get vaccinated, the party could lose the next election. For Republicans, an excerpt of that message read:

Please make sure you and your friends/relatives get vaccinated so you can help us defeat the Democrats in the next election. The stakes are very high: If we don’t get vaccinated against covid-19, Democrats might keep their hold on Congress in the 2022 midterm elections. They might possibly even keep the White House in 2024.

We call this the “shot to win” group. The other half read a selection about something unrelated, with no discussion of the vaccine or the election.

We then asked all respondents a series of follow-up questions about how willing they would be to get vaccinated and how willing they would be to encourage family members to get vaccinated.

We also asked if they would like to be provided, at the end of the survey, with CDC information about covid-19 myths and facts and a CDC guide to where they could get vaccinated nearby. If respondents requested this information, we did provide these links.

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Republicans responded to the “shot to win” message

Republicans who read the “shot to win” excerpt were much more favorable toward the coronavirus vaccine than those in the control group, who didn’t receive any message from the party’s national committee.

Republicans who hadn’t yet been vaccinated were 11 percentage points more willing to get the shot than those that read the neutral message; those who had already been vaccinated were four percentage points more willing to get the booster shot, once it’s available. All Republicans in the “shot to win” group were 17 percentage points more likely to ask for CDC facts about the vaccine, and 11 percentage points more likely to ask for CDC information about where to get vaccinated.

Similarly, reading the “shot to win” message left Republicans 12 percentage points more likely to encourage hesitating family members to get vaccinated.

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A shot to win

If Republican leaders want to encourage their voters to get vaccinated using this message, they could avoid looking weak for endorsing vaccines; instead, they could look strong for emphasizing victory over their enemies — and strength is a trait that Republicans thrive on. They could also likely avoid being seen as traitors to their party, since the message itself would be one of party support.

By pointing to potential consequences in an election, Republican leaders can keep the focus on what members of their party want: beating the Democrats. The strategy could spread a pro-vaccination message without alienating the Republican base or potentially attracting a primary challenge from vaccine opposers.

To end the pandemic, the United States needs to undo the politicization of vaccination. Appeals to science, social solidarity, and even self-preservation have come up against the realities of partisan polarization. By accepting and even leveraging negative partisanship, or the animosity many Americans feel for the “other” party, Republican leaders might be able to save lives by appealing to their followers’ desire to win over the Democrats.

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John V. Kane (@UptonOrwell) is an assistant professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University.

Ian G. Anson (@iganson) is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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