One of the biggest challenges in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic over the last year has been political polarization on public health measures — whether it's the shuttering of stores, physical distancing or mask wearing — and vaccines are no exception.
Some groups with initial vaccine hesitancy — such as Black Americans and Latinos — have shown clear declines in hesitancy as vaccination rates have increased. But partisan identity is now the biggest predictor of vaccine hesitancy — 44% of Republicans say they do not intend to get vaccinated while 92% of Democrats have been vaccinated or intend to be.
These vaccine-hesitant Republicans may be the biggest barrier to eventual herd immunity in America, which could require 70% to 85% of the population to be vaccinated or immune to the coronavirus. In other words, effective outreach to this subgroup is critically important to ending the pandemic.
What are the best ways to persuade Republicans to get the vaccine? Research suggests three approaches: improving public health messaging in general, getting trusted political voices (GOP leaders) to promote vaccination, and getting positive vaccination messages out through nonpolitical messengers. What does not seem to help is having Democratic leaders ask Republicans to get their shot.
New research finds that people are more likely to accept vaccination if they believe that doing so is normal. Americans tend to underestimate public levels of vaccine receptivity, which is relatively high. Informing Americans about that fact can increase vaccine receptivity. But general public health messaging alone is unlikely to motivate large numbers of Republicans who are skeptical.
Another approach is having trusted sources put out strong, consistent pro-vaccination messages. For example, partnering with local faith leaders was considered crucial to effectively promoting public health behaviors during the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
Could Republican leaders and community members serve a similar function, driving uptake among their vaccine-hesitant base? So far, that has not happened. The GOP leadership has not made the pro-vaccination message a priority with its base. However, Donald Trump, who was vaccinated in January, did praise the vaccines at the Conservative Political Action Conference in early March, calling them a “modern miracle” and encouraging the audience to get vaccinated: “Everybody, go get your shot.”
Could Trump’s support of the vaccine help? A new experiment found that it could with some people. Republicans who were told that Trump and other Republicans supported vaccination reported 7% higher vaccination intentions than if they were told that President Biden and other Democrats supported vaccination. At the same time, Republicans who viewed the Democrats’ endorsement said they would be less likely to encourage others to get vaccinated.
This new study and others show that there is a “movable middle” of Republicans who are persuadable. But there was no real movement among Republicans who had previously said they were extremely unlikely to get vaccinated.
This finding reveals a neglected feature of political polarization around vaccination: Republicans are themselves deeply divided on the issue. Although many have already been vaccinated or plan to be, there are substantial numbers that remain solidly resistant even with support from Trump, and reaching that hard core will be a struggle.
Another strategy to reach these Republicans is through trusted nonpolitical figures and organizations. Religious leaders, athletes, entertainers and organizations with appeal among Republicans all could be persuasive if equipped with ways to communicate effectively. For example, religious leaders and some NASCAR drivers have promoted vaccination. Research suggests that military figures could also be persuasive.
Biden recently said that increasing vaccine receptivity would best be achieved through one-on-one interactions with doctors and medical health professionals, a claim supported by polling research. This fits with research on political persuasion in general, where “deep canvassing” — in-depth, empathetic, one-on-one conversations — has emerged as an effective technique for persuading conservatives on political issues.
Although engaging in individual conversations about the vaccine may seem inefficient during a crisis that demands swift action, a concerted effort to promote such conversations by healthcare professionals, and giving them the tools to do so, could be one of the few ways to move Republicans who are vaccine-resistant.
No single strategy can turn around vaccine hesitancy that so deeply reflects the nation’s political polarization. Public health officials will need to draw on several tactics simultaneously — targeting Republicans who are on the fence as well as those who are resistant — if we are to build vaccine confidence across political divides. Public health and a return to our pre-pandemic world will depend on it.
Robb Willer is a professor of sociology, psychology and organizational behavior at Stanford University. Jay Van Bavel is an associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.