Political party

The role that political party affiliation played in bringing the United States to another grim milestone of one million COVID deaths

(The Conversation) – COVID-19 has now claimed the lives of 1 million Americans – a grim milestone made worse by the fact that probably a third of those deaths could have been prevented. Estimates suggest that more than 318,000 deaths from the disease have occurred among people who had access to vaccines, but chose not to receive them.

With such a devastating pandemic sweeping the country and the world, why would so many Americans forgo a potentially life-saving vaccine?

A key answer to this question is – as with many in the United States today – partisan politics.

Since COVID-19 vaccines first became available, polls have consistently shown that Republicans are far less likely than Democrats to be vaccinated or want to be vaccinated. According to monthly surveys conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, this partisan gap averaged more than 30 percentage points between May 2021 and April 2022.

But the story is both more complicated and larger than it seems. We know that party and ideology account for many of the differences in American life.

Our research reveals that not only is party affiliation a strong predictor of willingness to get vaccinated, but it also contributes to other attitudes that promote or inhibit willingness to get vaccinated, empowering it. additional.

The lure of partisanship

In two surveys we conducted in March and June 2021, we found that party affiliation affected COVID-19 vaccination preferences independent of some of the standard influences such as education, age and gender. race. This means that the part alone can help determine if a person has been vaccinated.

What we also found, however, is that partisanship has additional effects on vaccination status and willingness. This is because it contributes to other factors that also affect willingness to get vaccinated, and therefore contributes ‘indirectly’ to willingness as well as directly.

These indirect factors included the impact of partisanship on the fear of contracting COVID-19 oneself; concern for others who contract it; trust in government; trust in scientists and health professionals; and conspiracy theories surrounding the vaccine – namely that the vaccine would insert a tracking chip into the body and that it could lead to sterility.

Party affiliation influenced Americans’ attitudes in each of these areas, which in turn affected a person’s willingness to get a COVID-19 vaccine. This essentially multiplies the effect that party affiliation has on vaccinations.

Vaccine fracture

Republicans and Democrats haven’t always felt differently about potentially life-saving vaccines.

An examination of historical trends in public opinion during other health crises shows that in 1954 Republicans were about as likely – just 3 percentage points less – than Democrats to say they were ready to receive the new polio vaccine.

The vaccine hesitancy gap between parties for the Asian flu vaccine in 1957 was a bit larger, but still a far cry from today’s gap – Democrats were 9 points more likely to get this vaccine. For the swine flu vaccine in 1976, Democrats were 4 points more likely to get vaccinated.

But since 2000, there have been double-digit partisan gaps in willingness to accept other vaccines to address public health crises. When George W. Bush’s administration raised the possibility of reintroducing the smallpox vaccine in 2002, Republicans were 11 points less likely than Democrats to say they would get the vaccine. During the swine flu pandemic in 2009, this difference increased to 15 points. More recently, the initial reaction of a July 2020 Gallup poll to the promise of a new COVID-19 vaccine produced a 34-point gap: 81% of Democrats said they were likely to receive the vaccine against only 47% of Republicans.

While there’s no way to say for sure whether Republicans are dying of COVID-19 at higher rates than Democrats because of these discrepancies, some numbers suggest so. ABC News analysis shows that after vaccines became readily available, states that voted for Donald Trump in 2020 had on average 38% higher death rates from COVID-19 than states that voted for Joe Biden.

The partisan difference in vaccine hesitancy can be attributed to a broader shift in each party’s attitudes toward science.

What happened?

Polling data shows that throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Republicans were consistently more likely than Democrats to report high trust in the scientific community.

By the mid-1980s, however, prominent Republican leaders began to publicly denigrate scientific contributions to public policy issues – first on the acid rain debate, then on other topics.

Over time, these messages discrediting science and the opinions of scientists on public policy have affected public opinion within the parties.

In the early 2000s, parties began to shift positions. Since 2008, Democrats have consistently shown greater faith in science, with the largest gap ever — 30 percentage points — occurring in the most recent survey measuring it, in 2020.

The path from a broader distrust of science to hesitation about vaccines may have a long history, but it is quite simple. Scientists are those who research and develop vaccines, while scientifically trained doctors and nurses administer them. The most prominent talking heads in the media advocating for vaccination have come from the scientific community – including, notably, Dr. Anthony Fauci. Based on years of rhetoric from party leaders, Republican voters were already prepared to be wary of those numbers.

Our own research shows that citizens who distrust scientists and distrust medical professionals are less likely to be vaccinated and show less willingness to consider doing so in the future.

Since these trends are now more prominent within the Republican Party than the Democratic Party, this contributes to widening the overall partisan gap in COVID-19 vaccination and death rates between red and blue states.

Even though COVID-19 appears to be getting less deadly, experts warn it’s not the last viral pandemic we’ll face.

Elected officials and other decision makers planning for future threats would be wise to keep in mind the depth of the current partisan divide over vaccination.

For example, while state and federal officials were keen to conduct specialized outreach activities to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates in low-income communities and communities of color, specialized outreach can also be appropriate on the basis of partisan affiliation. Further, such outreach must take into account that a major hurdle to overcome among Republicans is a lack of trust in medical professionals specifically — and in science more generally.