Almost like a switch had been flipped, a set of high-profile Republican political figures and conservative media personalities recently shifted their stance on the Covid-19 shots and became more outspoken and proactive in urging Americans to get vaccinated.
Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama, the state with the lowest proportion of fully vaccinated people in the country, said last week it was time to shame vaccination holdouts. Commentator Sean Hannity, who had previously called the pandemic a hoax, offered an on-air argument for viewers to get vaccinated. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis, who had been selling merchandise mocking the use of masks, said the anti-Covid vaccines “are saving lives”. The Republican congressman Steve Scalise of Louisiana, where only 36% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated, finally got inoculated publicly after refraining from doing so.
In Kentucky, Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, is planning to use campaign re-election resources to run radio ads in the state urging voters to get vaccinated, according to Reuters.
And on the campaign trail, Donald Trump’s former press secretary, Sarah Sanders, who is thefavorite to become the next governor of Arkansas, sent out a long email to supporters titled Why I Got Vaccinated urging them to get the shot too (while also bashing the country’s leading infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci).
All together it’s a shift among some of the most prominent voices within the Republican party and among conservatives toward encouraging vaccine use rather than leaving it up to personal choice.
Polls have shown that conservative Americans are much more likely to be unvaccinated and hesitant to get the shot. Some observers have welcomed the recent shift by high-profile Republicans, but others warn it may be too little, too late.
States with the lowest percentages of fully vaccinated residents all tilt reliably Republican, according to data continuously updated by the Mayo Clinic. Rates in those states are lower than 40%. By contrast the states with the highest percentage of vaccinated people are near 70%, and largely lean Democratic.
The shift in tone comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people resume wearing masks inside in areas where the Delta varianthas led to a surge in cases.
Polling shows that rank-and-file Republicans are more likely to listen to “Republican elites” than to Democratic elites who encourage them to take a vaccine. But in interviews with half a dozen Republican pollsters, including ones who have held focus groups on encouraging holdouts to get vaccinated, they say that there is still a block of Americans who won’t be moved even if it’s a Republican urging them to get the shot – no matter if there’s a chance they could win $1m or a shotgun or tuition money or fishing permits, incentives that governors across the country have used to motivate people who are resistant to getting vaccinated.
“People just don’t trust politicians,” said the Republican pollster Brent Buchanan. “So even Trump saying, ‘I’ve been vaccinated, get the vaccine’ doesn’t undo how people have sought out information to justify their position.”
Jim McLaughlin, another Republican pollster who advised Trump on his re-election campaign said “your best messenger is your own physician”.
“We’ve tested all that stuff with these folks and none of that’s moving them. Be a millionaire? Not interested. I mean when you survey these conservative Republicans … who are against getting the vaccines it is literally having the ostrich with the head in the sand,” said Greg Strimple, a Republican pollster who has conducted focus groups with holdouts.
“I really do think the secret to potentially getting this group vaccinated is going to be some sort of peer-to-peer, more likely family-member-to-family-member, effort,” Strimple said.
One thing that’s clear among pollsters: the change in tone from Republican lawmakers has not been prompted by new polling. Rather it’s because of the increasing urgency that US political figures are feeling about a pandemic that is far from over and may be on the brink of entering a new, dangerous phase.
“There’s data out there but it’s not polling data, it’s Covid data. The surge in the Delta variant is coming largely in Republican states and particularly in Republican rural counties of states and it’s that data that has led these Republican leaders to speak out more forcefully,” said Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster.
“Now, it needs to be said that some Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell have always been forceful advocates for vaccinations, driven by the fact that he had polio as a kid and we no longer have polio because of vaccines. But there’s no question that more Republican figures like Kay Ivey, the governor of Alabama, have been more vociferous of late because so many people are getting infected who need not get infected if they simply got the vaccine.”
At this point, political messengers are unlikely to be able to undo the harm caused by misinformation sources on Covid vaccines, Buchanan said.
“Yeah, there are holdouts because the information sources – conservative cable channels and a massive amount of disinformation on Facebook and other social media sites – have persuaded millions of people that the vaccines are either not necessary or downright dangerous,” Buchanan said.
“There are a lot of people who believe that getting a vaccine will cause fertility problems later on. They’ve heard that Bill Gates is injecting a tracking device under your skin that you can use to track your movements later on. There’s just a ridiculous amount of garbage that’s presented as fact on social media and in some cases on cable TV. And a lot of people believe that.”