Politics

How Biden can beat vaccine polarization, explained in 600 words

As President Joe Biden prepares for the next phase of America’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout, there’s one strategy he should seriously consider: staying quiet.

As it stands, the big holdout group for vaccines is Republicans. “The biggest predictor of vaccine hesitancy is party identification,” Robb Willer, director of Stanford’s Polarization and Social Change Lab, told me.

That’s clear at the state level: The 10 states with the highest vaccination rates all went for Biden in the 2020 election, while nine of the 10 states with the lowest vaccination rates went for Donald Trump (with the exception of Georgia).

Vaccine polarization is a big challenge for Biden because Republicans are unlikely to listen to him. In fact, a recent study by Willer’s team found that Biden’s advocacy can backfire — making Republicans less likely to say they intend to get vaccinated. Other researchers have produced similar findings.

It’s a reflection of the polarization that has affected all things Covid-19 in the US. From the start of the pandemic, Republican figures like Trump have downplayed the risks of the coronavirus. This has led many people to believe the threat of the virus is overstated across the media. And these beliefs endure even as the country approaches 600,000 reported Covid-19 deaths.

It also reflects the polarization that has afflicted America more broadly in recent decades — from politics to the Oscars.

If Biden wants to meet his goal of vaccinating 70 percent of adults by July 4, he’s going to need at least some Republicans on board. So what can be done to get this group vaccinated?

Part of the answer is still about improving access, from meeting people where they are (including entertainment venues, such as concerts and bars) to developing a DoorDash-like system that brings the vaccine to people’s homes. There are still some unvaccinated Republicans who want the vaccine, and making it easier for them to get the shot could push them over the line.

An outreach campaign, led by Republicans, could also play a role, although the evidence is mixed. Willer’s study found unvaccinated Republicans reported 7 percent higher vaccination intentions after they were shown Republican elites’ endorsement of the vaccines. Other research, from the UCLA Covid-19 Health and Politics Project, found a pro-vaccine message from Trump didn’t have much of an effect on Republicans’ intentions to get vaccinated.

Willer argued that an approach combining a variety of messaging strategies, from TV ads to elite cues to texts to deep canvassing, could produce a bigger, significant effect. But this could require, at least in part, explicit Republican support to really move the most hesitant people.

Lynn Vavreck, principal investigator of the UCLA Covid-19 Health and Politics Project, told me she’s skeptical that more information or messaging can help at this point. Instead, she’s all-in on offering incentives for getting vaccinated. For example, her research found that offering $100 or telling people they no longer have to social distance or mask up in public if they get vaccinated can move Republicans toward getting the shot.

“Things that actually affect people’s lives,” Vavreck explained, “not just informational things.”

This carrot could be coupled with a stick. Surveys from the Kaiser Family Foundation found about one-third of the most vaccine-resistant would get the shot if it was required — not necessarily under the law, but by an employer or, say, to get into restaurants.

The Biden administration could play a role in these approaches, helping build them behind the scenes or funding them.

But the administration probably won’t be able to rely on Biden’s speeches to get America across the vaccine finish line.

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