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Political communication and vaccination rates: Covid-19 insights from the US

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07 September 2021
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Covid 19 business closure in Seattle Washington - © Nick Bolton/Unsplash Nick Bolton/Unsplash

During my studies in Bologna, Italy this school year, Covid-19 was an inescapable presence and topic of conversation. Depending on case levels, we were in and out of lockdowns, as in much of Europe. When vaccines started getting approved and the rollout slowly began, we watched with envy as our friends in the United States started getting vaccinated and returning to a semi-normal life as our weeks in the zona rossa stretched on.

Arriving home to Seattle, Washington at the beginning of the summer was shocking: while in Italy the vaccine felt like a distant daydream still for my age group, on my very first day home I was able to walk into the nearest pharmacy and get vaccinated. The more jarring difference, however, was in attitudes toward Covid-19 and vaccines. Supply chain and distribution obstacles are out of the hands of ordinary citizens, but the choice to get vaccinated certainly is not.

Shaping attitudes toward vaccines

It is hard to wrap my mind around the scale of not just vaccine hesitancy in the United States, but outright rejection and politicization of vaccines. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not limited to the US. Some recent studies have highlighted vaccine hesitancy throughout Europe as well. However, to give an idea of the scale of the resistance, in Italy, a survey by SWG in late July found that 8% of respondents were definitively anti-vaccine and 7% undecided. In comparison, the CDC found in household surveys from March—May 2021 that 24.9% of respondents said they probably or definitely would not get vaccinated, a stark difference. Additionally, although some studies noted low rates of vaccine acceptance in survey attitudes in Italy, 57.6% of the population has been fully vaccinated in comparison to only 51.5% of the population in the United States according to data from Reuters. Given how much earlier vaccines were widely available in the United States, this highlights the disparity in both attitudes toward vaccines and more concretely, actual willingness to be vaccinated. Recent studies have suggested that reaching herd immunity may be out of reach in many countries if the current levels of vaccine hesitancy are maintained, underscoring the importance of addressing this issue.

Vaccine hesitancy and rejection in the US did not develop in a vacuum: somehow, the Republican party and Trump managed to politicize a global pandemic, deepening national divides and splitting attitudes on Covid-19 along party lines. In early stages of the pandemic, as Trump minimized the threat of the pandemic, some governors took action at the state level to try to mitigate the impact and protect their constituents. Communication styles varied from state to state, with the West Coast governors (Jay Inslee of Washington, Kate Brown of Oregon, and Gavin Newsom of California) implementing emergency measures and focusing rhetoric around community safety. For example, Gavin Newsom was the first governor to implement a stay-at-home order_pandemic,_2020), with 42 other governors eventually following suit (all eventually lifted by December 3, 2020). Inslee took on both Covid-19 and the Trump administration, in February 2020 commenting on a phone call with former Vice President Pence that, “our work [regarding Covid-19] would be more successful if the Trump administration stuck to the science and told the truth.” Other governors, such as Ron DeSantis of Florida, echoed Trump’s rhetoric, minimizing or outright rejecting the dangers and emphasizing economic recovery rather than mitigating the spread of Covid-19. All seven states that did not issue a stay-at-home order at any point in 2020 had Republican governors. Even now, as the Delta variant rips across the United States and Florida’s cases spike, DeSantis is threatening to withhold funding from schools that require children to wear masks.

Governors’ communication and vaccination rates

This pandemic has been a case study for a plethora of academic and scientific fields, and political communication should not be overlooked. Wide-ranging, large-scale studies of political leadership and communication throughout this pandemic could reveal valuable insights for what strategies work to engage communities constructively. An important caveat here, however, is that not everything observed such as attitudes, vaccination rates, etc. can be attributed to communication alone: the population of a state that elects a governor who prioritized mitigating Covid-19 may also inherently been more disposed to welcome the vaccines. For instance, Democrats countrywide are more likely to have been vaccinated than Republicans: on average as of July 6th, according to an analysis by KFF, the vaccination rate in counties that voted for Biden in 2020 was 46.7%, compared to 35% of counties that voted for Trump. Democratic governors took more active stances in reaction to Covid-19, including encouraging the populace to get vaccinated. Breaking down what can be attributed to intrinsic attitudes and characteristics of the population versus what may have been influenced by governors’ communication choices is a methodological challenge stretching far beyond the scope of a blog post, but worth examining. Governors’ communication choices matters, as supported by a study finding that governor recommendations to stay at home had an impact on citizen behavior comparable to official stay at home orders, although the effect was influenced by political partisanship as well.

A few initial observations about governor communication and behavior in response to Covid-19 indicate that even if causation can’t be determined, there is certainly a correlation between a more active response and higher rates of vaccination. For instance, examining executive orders tracked by Ballotpedia_pandemic,_2020), it can be observed that Democrat governors on average issued more executive orders from February 2020 to June 29th 2020 in response to Covid-19, as demonstrated by the chart below. Democrat governors issued an average of 47.04 with the highest being 132 from Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, compared to an average of 36.33 executive orders from Republican governors and a high of 67 from Charles Baker in Massachusetts. This is an imperfect measure of responses to Covid-19 as it does not evaluate the content of the executive orders: for instance, some of the executive orders by Republican governors were lifting initial response measures far earlier than advisable, or taking other steps not necessarily in the interest of public health.

© Aspen Brooks | Aspen Brooks

However, the general trend still indicates a different behavior pattern overall between Republican and Democrat governors in this context.

Looking more specifically at messaging around vaccines, Democrat governors have also been more active in this arena than Republican governors. Based on information listed on the website of the National Governor’s Association, 78.3% of Democrat-governed states have some sort of vaccine incentive program in place. In contrast, only 29.6% of Republican-governed states have vaccine incentive programs rolled out. The incentives are particularly important, given that some preliminary studies have suggested that incentives are effective at increasing vaccination rates. One such study in Germany found that although there is variation across age groups, combinations of different incentive strategies increased vaccination rates by up to as a much as 13 percentage points among undecided individuals. Although attitudes and the political climate are distinct in the US and Germany, this offers hope that incentives can overcome hesitancy and are thus worthwhile examining.

© Aspen Brooks | Aspen Brooks

So what?

As acknowledged above, it is challenging to parse precisely which outcomes can be attributed to governor response and what may be influenced by the pre-existing attitudes and attributes of the respective state populations. However, there is a clear pattern of more active responses from Democrat governors, suggesting it may provide valuable insights to examine if their actions and communications changed the minds of any of their constituents. For instance, a survey of Republicans in Democrat-governed states could reveal interesting implications, or perhaps a comparative evaluation of Democrats in Republican-governed states versus Democrat-governed states. Beyond scholarly investigation, however, vaccine hesitancy and governors’ willingness to combat it have increasingly urgent implications for everyone as the Delta variant continues to spread. The difference in governors’ actions and rhetoric in response to Covid-19 stretches past an interesting case study: they help shape their constituents attitudes and resulting actions, such as getting vaccinated or not. These attitudes are in turn laying the groundwork for the current rising wave of Covid-19 cases across the US, which are touching everyone’s lives. It is past time for Republican governors to set partisanship aside and address the pandemic, head-on.

Aspen Brooks

Aspen Brooks is a dual degree Master’s candidate at University of London SOAS (MSc in Politics of Conflict, Rights, & Justice) and Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe (MA in International Affairs). She holds a BA in International Relations and Spanish from Linfield University. Her research interests include human rights, transitional justice, language, and education. When she’s not working as a research assistant for the Institute for Comparative Federalism at Eurac Research, you can find her working at a local winery in Seattle, embroidering, or reading!

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  • Europe
  • USA
  • Covid-19

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