The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The biggest divide on vaccination isn’t race or income but party — and the divide is growing

The unvaccinated lean Republican by a 3-to-1 margin

Hundreds gather at Foley Square to protest vaccination mandates in New York on Sept. 13, 2021. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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It has been clear since at least April that vaccination rates in the United States would not filter evenly throughout the public. Older Americans quickly signed up to get a shot (and, of course, were first in line for availability). Younger Americans have consistently been slower to do so. There’s an imbalance that results but, happily, one in which people most at risk from covid-19 are more protected.

The widest divide in vaccination rates, though, isn’t between old and young Americans or between rich and poor Americans or between White and Black Americans. Instead, as has been the case all year, it’s between Democratic and Republican Americans.

Monthly polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that for every unvaccinated Democrat or Democratic-leaning independent, there are about three unvaccinated Republicans or Republican-leaning independents. That’s in a population where each political group is about evenly represented nationally — and it’s despite the two groups being about evenly represented among the unvaccinated back in April.

About 43 percent of American adults are Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents. In April, 36 percent of the unvaccinated population were Democrats or leaners; now, 17 percent are. In April, 42 percent of the unvaccinated were Republican or Republican-leaning independents; now, 60 percent are.

Partisanship is about twice as strong a predictor of vaccination status as any other demographic characteristic, according to KFF’s analysis.

When we look at the data month-by-month, you can see how the partisan split widened even as other divides closed. From April to October, the percentage of unvaccinated Americans who are Republicans or leaners steadily increased; the percentage who are Democrats dropped.

Compare that to racial groups. In April (box R1 below), Black and Hispanic people made up a larger percentage of the unvaccinated pool than they did the population overall: a third of the unvaccinated overall compared to about 28 percent of the population. By October (R2), the distribution had evened out; the distributions in the population and in the unvaccinated population had lined up.

In April, lower-income and less-educated Americans (boxes I1 and E1) also made up more of the unvaccinated population than higher-income and college-educated people. The former evened out (I2); the latter (E2) didn’t. Those with a college degree still make up much less of the pool of unvaccinated Americans than they do the population overall.

There is overlap between partisanship and things like race and income. That the percentage of Whites in the unvaccinated population is larger than it was in April is linked to the fact that the percentage of Republicans in the unvaccinated population is much larger than it was then. Again, KFF found partisanship to be a bigger factor than race, but Republicans are also much more likely to be White.

The polling also examined why Republicans might or might not choose to be vaccinated. One finding — echoing past polling — was that Republicans who have not been vaccinated were far more likely to state that the seriousness of the threat posed by the virus is overstated. More than half of vaccinated Republicans said the threat was overstated, but 9 in 10 unvaccinated Republicans said the same thing.

Unvaccinated Republicans were also much more likely to say they weren’t at all worried about getting sick with covid-19. More than half of that group held that opinion — one that would obviously help explain an indifference to the demonstrated effectiveness of the vaccines at keeping people from getting very sick from covid.

But it is disconnected from the other reason to get vaccinated: that doing so slows community spread and protects those who can’t get vaccinated or who are more at risk. KFF’s polling found that 8 in 10 vaccinated Democrats saw the vaccine as a responsibility centered on helping others as well. Only 3 percent of unvaccinated Republicans held that view.

There’s an important qualifier here, pointed out by CNN’s Ariel Edwards-Levy. A lot of attention has been focused on the unvaccinated, for obvious reasons, and on the role partisanship plays in the choice about vaccination. But it is nonetheless the case that most Republicans (and, of course, most adults) are actually vaccinated. A lot of the shifts since April are a function of pulling Democrats out of the pool of the unvaccinated faster than Republicans are being pulled out, leaving a smaller overall group that is more densely Republican. But they’re the minority.

They are also more likely to be young, less educated and more conservative. That’s a bit of a silver lining, too: Since 3 in 5 are under age 60, they’re less at risk if they contract the virus. Good news, given that they are more at risk of contracting it.

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