Disaster? Republicans and independents now say schools shouldn't be allowed to mandate any vaccines

AP Photo/Ben Gray

Scott Gottlieb warned us in October:

When you demonize a particular vaccine and frame your arguments against it broadly, in terms of freedom, rather than narrowly, pertaining to that specific vaccine, you’re destined to steer people towards questioning vaccine mandates of all stripes. “If it’s wrong to demand that my child get a COVID vaccine as a condition of attending school, why isn’t it also wrong to demand that they get vaccinated against measles or mumps?”

Freedom is freedom, right?

A YouGov poll published five months ago asked, “Do you think students age 12 and up should be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19?” Result: 50/35 in favor, although the partisan gap was ominous. Democrats split 79/9 while Republicans split 25/63. Independents sided with Democrats narrowly, 44/39. When the question was expanded to all vaccines, however, support grew. Asked “Do you think parents should be required to have their children vaccinated against infectious diseases?,” Americans were 60/23 in favor. Dems broke 85/8 and indies 56/28. Even Republicans narrowly approved, 46/35.

Although that was down from 64 percent GOP support just a year earlier, a major early clue that the campaign against COVID vaccine mandates was turning Republicans against all vaccine mandates, not just ones for COVID.

Today’s new YouGov poll appears to confirm that. The key question in this survey was different, but only slightly different, from the ones that were asked in October: “Do you believe K-12 schools should be allowed to mandate vaccines for their students?” Note that there’s no mention of COVID there. The question encompasses all vaccines.

Result: An apparent catastrophe.

Why do I say “apparent”? Because it’s hard to know how much respondents in the poll understood that they were being asked about all vaccines, not COVID vaccines. Questions that were asked earlier in this survey specifically mentioned COVID vaccines, which may have primed people to think of those specifically when they were asked about school vaccine mandates generally. So maybe all this Q&A tells us is how people feel about mandating shots for COVID, not for measles or mumps.

But maybe not. As noted above, in the October poll Republicans managed to distinguish between the COVID vaccine and vaccines generally when they were asked about them in separate questions. It’s conceivable that the spread of anti-vax propaganda over the last five months combined with the GOP’s crusade against vaccine mandates and in favor of “parental choice” in all educational matters has driven Republicans and right-leaning independents towards a hardline anti-mandate position. Would it be that surprising that rank-and-file voters digested all of those messages and arrived at the conclusion that requiring students to be vaccinated against any disease, not just COVID, is beyond the proper authority of the state department of education?

Harry Enten of CNN pointed to this poll from 2015, conducted amid a small measles outbreak, as evidence of how uniform Americans’ views of mandatory vaccination used to be not so long ago. The question: “Do you think parents should or should not be required to have their children vaccinated against preventable diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella or polio if the children are healthy enough to be vaccinated?”

No meaningful partisan differences, although even then the GOP was a bit less inclined to approve — possibly due to its ideological discomfort with mandates of any sort, not with vaccines. Seven years later, opinion looks completely different. And given how wide the vaccination gap is between Democrats and Republicans at this stage of the pandemic, I’m less sure that it’s the “mandate” part rather than the “vaccine” part that’s making populist righties look dimly on school vaccine mandates.

We need some pollster to do a proper survey in order to resolve the ambiguity in YouGov’s data. Ask people separately how they feel about schools mandating the vaccine for COVID and how they feel about them mandating vaccines for measles and mumps. Some contingent will oppose the former while supporting the latter, believing that there’s enough of a track record of safety and efficacy behind the measles/mumps vaccine to justify requiring that one. What I want to know is how big the contingent is that would say no to both, whether because they’ve become full-spectrum anti-vax or because they now oppose all school mandates as a matter of principle. The safety of a lot of children depends on the answer.

I’ll leave you with this, a graph that made the rounds on social media yesterday.