The vaccination gap between red and blue counties is widening

AP Photo/Marta Lavandier

The feedback on social media when you point out that red states are lagging and that’s not good has gotten more contentious lately, which makes sense. The country’s hitting the “vaccine wall” and so public attention has turned to places where vaccination rates are low, and many of those places have something in common politically. Some Republicans feel defensive about it, and not just anti-vaxxers. I mean pro-vaxxers who for tribal reasons bristle at the idea of scapegoating righties for whatever’s left of America’s pandemic. There are other groups with low-ish vaccination rates too, after all: Black Americans tend to represent a smaller share of a state’s vaccinated population than they represent of that state’s overall population.

But even with a heavily Democratic group like African-Americans dragging down the overall average for their party, fully 88 percent of Dems say they’ve either had one shot or are planning to get vaccinated ASAP. By comparison, just 54 percent of Republicans say the same. The same poll shows black adults above that, at 65 percent who’ve either gotten a dose or will soon. Blacks are also less likely to be strongly opposed to getting vaccinated than Republicans are, with 17 percent saying they either won’t get the shot or will do so only if required versus 31 percent of GOPers who say the same.

Why righties are less likely to get immunized than lefties is complicated and has a top-down and bottom-up component. The bottom-up one is that the modern GOP base is populist and populists are philosophically skeptical of expert authority. Sometimes that’s justified, sometimes it means concocting pseudo-scientific reasons to not get a government-promoted shot championed by the likes of Anthony Fauci. The top-down component, described today by Charlie Sykes, is the fact that many Republican politicians and much of righty media (which mostly caters to populists) is increasingly what we might call anti-anti-anti-vax. They’re not opposed to vaccination per se, as that would be too irresponsible even for most strong partisans, but they’re eager to seize any opportunity to align themselves with the many vaccine-skeptics in the party’s base. DeSantis crusading against vaccine passports for cruise lines is an example. House Republicans throwing tantrums at the thought of local officials going door-to-door to promote the vaccine is another. More from Sykes:

The irony is that many of those who now deride the vaccines also objected to lockdowns, social distancing, and the wearing of masks. In a rational world, they would see the vaccines as a ticket back to normal life.

Instead, at this moment, they have chosen to go full anti-vax. Even with hundreds of thousands of dead, and hospitals again filling up, the lies continue; media types tell them to get clicks and likes; pols spread the lies to raise their profile and bring in cash.

And their recklessness will kill people. This is not hyperbole.

The toll of the lies —the tweets, cable hits, and performative demagoguery — can be measured in human lives. The right’s burst of dishonesty means that more fathers, mothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, even children will die.

“Depraved indifference to human life” is Sykes’s term for the top-down phenomenon of influential Republicans pushing anti-anti-anti-vaxism to ingratiate themselves to the party’s base for political or financial reasons. The supreme irony is that the most influential Republican of all, Donald Trump, isn’t guilty of that. Trump isn’t cutting any PSAs to promote the vaccine but every time he’s been asked about it in interviews he’s recommended getting immunized. He’s been immunized himself. As I said yesterday, Operation Warp Speed can take credit for having helped save literally hundreds of thousands of lives.

But Trump’s position here also proves my point that this isn’t strictly a top-down dynamic in which Tucker Carlson’s habit of “just asking questions” about the vaccines is leading a zombified MAGA base off a cliff. They’re not zombified; they have their own opinions and even Trump holding an opinion to the contrary isn’t enough to sway them. Vaccine reluctance in righty areas is a case of people who are predisposed to distrust authorities outside their own camp being reinforced in their suspicions by people whom they do trust. And the fact that they’re often siloed off in the media they consume means it isn’t necessarily easy to get information to the contrary to them.

Which leads to this new result, from the Kaiser Family Foundation:

That gap is easily explained in a sense. In red states, the authorities ran into a “vaccine wall” much sooner than they did in blue states. Every state has a certain percentage of eager beavers ready to get vaccinated on day one, which is why the numbers in Democratic and Republican counties were roughly even at the end of April. Three months later, they’re not even anymore. There are simply more eager beavers in the blue states than the red ones.

You can slice and dice the partisan data in other ways. For instance, every state that’s above the national average of 55 percent of residents who have received a first dose is blue. Of the 10 states with the most cases per 100,000 people right now, eight are red. This graph at the county level shows a clear correlation between partisan lean and vaccination rate:

Some of the pushback I’ve gotten for pointing this out on social media is simple denial. We’re not asking each vaccinated person which party they belong to, are we? Then how can we say for certain that there’s a red/blue divide? To which I say: If the polling and the state data and the county data aren’t enough to convince you of it, what would? What’s the evidence that would tip a denialist into thinking, “Okay, yeah, there’s a problem here”?

The other criticism is that pointing out partisan differences is “divisive.” Well, no — refusing to get vaccinated because of some political or populist objection to experts is divisive. Pointing out that it’s happening is recognizing reality. But doing so isn’t a matter of dunking on vaccine skeptics or scolding them for their reluctance, it’s a matter of understanding that the political motives for some people’s vaccine skepticism means some strategies for persuading them to get vaxxed just aren’t going to work. Understanding the partisan/cultural component to some of the vaccine hesitancy out there is the first step to developing a more effective sales pitch. Weirdly, Biden and his team seem not to realize that on some level or else they wouldn’t keep sending Anthony Fauci out there to try to sell righties on the vaccines, knowing that Republicans lost trust in him ages ago and that Trump, their leader, now routinely derides him. They wouldn’t be using a hard-leftist like Xavier Becerra either, and they wouldn’t have Biden himself talking about door-to-door contact that’s destined to be attacked as some sort of affront to liberty by big government in Washington. The White House needs to be more cognizant of the partisan divide too.