The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The slippery slope of the GOP’s anti-vaccine-mandate push

A student looks back at his mother as he is vaccinated on May 24 in San Pedro, Calif. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)
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For a while in this space, we’ve been focused on a looming question: How long before Republicans’ coronavirus vaccine skepticism and anti-mandate fervor makes the next logical jump: to the other vaccines that have been mandated for many years?

We’ve seen some halting moves in that direction, including when Tennessee moved to curtail outreach on all vaccines to children, and then when a key Florida lawmaker last month suggested his state could “review” those other mandates. (Both ultimately pulled back.)

But in many ways, it makes too much sense that other vaccine mandates could be targeted next. So much of the GOP rhetoric is about how it’s wrong to mandate vaccines, full stop. How do you make that argument and then … still mandate other vaccines?

And some new data shows how primed we could be for just such a partisan debate.

The new YouGov poll shows that fewer than half of Republicans — 46 percent — now say parents should be required to vaccinate their children against infectious diseases.

That’s both far shy of where Democrats are at — 85 percent — and also far shy of where Republicans used to be. Used to be, as in last year.

YouGov has polled this question repeatedly over the years, and up until recently Republicans were in a pretty similar place to Democrats. Back in 2015, both 81 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of Republicans believed such vaccines should be mandated for children.

And that split held pretty constant, through 2020 — until the coronavirus vaccines.

Decline in GOP support for childhood vaccine mandates -- "Do you think parents should be required to have their children vaccinated against infectious diseases?" (Republicans vs. Democrats)

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the gap grow, with Republicans turning more against mandatory childhood vaccines. The Pew Research Center polled the issue in 2009 and found virtually no partisan difference. But by 2015, with some Republicans floating the idea of more of a choice for parents (and the GOP preparing to nominate a man who had baselessly linked vaccines to autism), there became a little separation. While 76 percent of Democrats favored mandatory vaccines, 65 percent of Republicans did.

But the shift was hardly what it is today, with this suddenly becoming a minority view for the GOP in consecutive YouGov polls. The August version of this question actually showed Republican support dropping to 33 percent.

The numbers were even lower for Trump voters in each poll — 31 percent in August and 40 percent today.

From there, there’s a valid question about how much this truly reflects on all vaccines, and how much it’s coronavirus-specific. Suddenly there is a vaccine for an infectious disease that Republicans are less certain about, and even less in favor of mandating. It’s possible some of those who are suddenly opposed to childhood vaccine mandates are merely hearing this question and thinking about the coronavirus vaccine. Thus, they say broadly that they don’t think such vaccines should be mandated, because they don’t think one of them should be mandated — even if they think others like the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine should remain mandatory.

(The question, notably, came after asking specifically about mandating the coronavirus vaccines for students and asking about the safety of other vaccines like MMR).

But that brings us back to the broader argument. Republicans have often distilled this talking point down to “no vaccine mandates” rather than saying “no coronavirus vaccine mandates.” The party has also co-opted the “my body, my choice” language generally used by abortion rights supporters.

This is helpful for them because it simplifies the argument as a libertarian one, without bothering with the meddling issue of why you oppose mandating one fully approved vaccine (for the coronavirus) but not others. The GOP has struggled mightily to explain why it’s drawing the line there, especially since the Pfizer vaccine obtained full approval.

But the simplicity of those talking points comes at the expense of the potential for feeding broader vaccine and vaccine-mandate opposition. It’s logical to think some people might take those things at face value, or even that they are intended as a wink-and-a-nod to the rather passionate and loud vaccine skeptic community, which many Republicans have been careful not to upset even as they’ve given the vaccines a periodic thumbs-up.

At some point, though, Republicans need to ask themselves whether they’re comfortable with their party edging in that direction, because it’s not a huge logical jump. And at the very least, they could explain why they are against mandating this vaccine but not that one.

And this debate will soon take off in a big way, when coronavirus vaccine mandates in schools become a reality — just like other vaccine mandates have been for a very long time, with relatively little pushback from either party.