Vaccines Became a Polarizing Issue Long Before COVID-19
A new study looks at when politics began to shape Americans’ opinions about vaccines and how sharp the divide between Democrats and Republicans has become.
By Bonnie Eissner
Once upon a time, not too long ago, getting a vaccine for a deadly disease was considered a health decision, not a political one. Today, many Americans base their decision to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or the flu on their political beliefs. A new study co-authored by Professor David R. Jones (GC/Baruch, Political Science) offers a detailed picture of this polarization of public opinion, including when it emerged and how much it has intensified.
In the paper, published as a preprint, Jones and his co-author, Monika L. McDermott, a professor of political science at Fordham University, analyzed public opinion data from the last 20 years on Americans’ attitudes toward vaccines and people’s willingness to get vaccinated and vaccinate their children. Their research shows that the stark political divide in Americans’ attitude towards vaccines, particularly COVID-19 vaccines, is part of a trend that began over a decade ago.
According to the study, before 2008, Americans’ attitudes about getting vaccines were largely apolitical. After that, Republicans became more skeptical about vaccines, while Democrats grew more supportive of them. The authors note that this split preceded the COVID-19 pandemic, which heightened the divergence, but didn’t start it.
“I view this as almost a new frontier,” Jones told the Graduate Center. “This is how bad partisan polarization has gotten, that in the area of medicine, and medicine that can save people from life-threatening diseases, that it’s affecting people’s attitudes.”
Tellingly, in one section of the study, Jones and McDermott analyze Gallup Poll data showing Democrats’ and Republicans’ willingness to take the six vaccines that were developed over the past 70 years for polio, Asian flu, swine flu (1976 and 2009), smallpox, and COVID-19. In each case, most respondents — between 54% and 66% — were willing to take the new, yet-to-be released vaccines. Attitudes about the earliest three vaccines among members of the two political parties were similar, but beginning in 2002, with the smallpox vaccine, that changed. Democrats’ and Republicans’ willingness to take the three most recent vaccines differed by double digits. By 2020, when people were asked about taking the COVID-19 vaccine, 83% of Democrats said they were willing take the new vaccine, compared to just 46% of Republicans.
Another series of polls about people’s support for requiring certain childhood vaccines shows that Democrats and Republicans had similar attitudes in 2009, but after that, their opinions split, with Democrats increasingly supportive of childhood vaccination requirements and Republicans less in favor of them.
Americans, according to the study, are now receiving more information about vaccines, but a larger proportion of that information is negative. At the same time, Americans have grown increasingly skeptical about the usefulness and safety of vaccines and the importance of requiring vaccinations. The authors report a notable drop in vaccine support between 2008 and 2015 and a second, sharp plummet beginning in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Despite the souring view of vaccines and the pull of party politics, policy still has sway, the authors note. Through 2017, more than 90% of children, aged 19 to 35 months, received the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine, which all 50 states mandate, even though attitudes about childhood vaccines became more negative. Likewise, a 2005 recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that every American get vaccinated against the flu correlates with more people doing just that. Annual flu vaccination rates among adults rose from 21% in 2005 to 48% in 2020.
Jones, in an interview, commented on the power of policy to drive behavior, but he remains pessimistic about the likelihood of Americans making a sharp U-turn in their partisan attitudes toward vaccines. He attributes much of this polarization to people being led by politicians who take different stances on vaccines and the science behind them. So, in theory, a change in politicians’ views could help turn the tide. “There are moments when something seems important enough, and the leaders are agreeing, and the public sees that, and they kind of follow in lockstep,” Jones said. “So it's possible, but I'm not sure that it’s probable in the near term.”
Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing