White, Republican, and Vaccine Skeptical

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S1: Dan, can I start by asking you to describe the picture that accompanied your story? I shouldn’t be laughing. Diane Dimond is a reporter at The Washington Post.

S2: It was a gentleman at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February wearing a mask, but not a normal mask of fishnet stockings mask. You could see his mouth. You could you could see his cheeks through this mask. He was clearly mocking the need for wearing protection during the pandemic.

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S1: Part of what’s so jarring about this picture is that the guy looks like he’s about to take a break from the conference to go golfing. He’s wearing a lanyard with a nametag on it, a polo shirt, and then that black fishnet on his face.

S2: Yeah, the kind of mask you wear when you want people to know that you think coronaviruses a big joke.

S1: Why was it the perfect image for your story?

S2: It sums up that for a lot of Americans, this pandemic is still a joke. It’s still overblown in their minds, something that we don’t need to protect ourselves from right now.

S1: The best protection against this virus is a vaccine. And it turns out the people who are most staunchly against the shot are people like this guy in the fishnet, white and Republican. The funny thing to me is that a few months back, I feel like we were talking a lot about vaccine hesitancy, but in the context of very different groups of people, we’re mostly talking about people of color.

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S2: Yes, for sure. There were real concerns for real reasons about getting vaccines into communities of color. But what has happened in the past few months is concerted focus on reaching those populations and less attention paid to all the Republicans who still say and even more now say that they don’t want the vaccine even as it’s rolling out today on the show, Dan went to talk to some of these Republicans to try to figure out what kinds of messages might reach them.

S1: The question now is whether those messages will reach them in time. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us. Diane Dimond started thinking about this particular group of vaccine, hesitant people, when you go to some polling that showed that while black and Hispanic Americans have become increasingly likely to get a vaccine over the last few months, white Republicans have only grown more likely to say they’d refuse the vaccine. But when he went to go talk to some of these Republicans, he found the reasons they had for avoiding the coronavirus shot weren’t so simple.

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S2: There was a lady in Oklahoma who had been contacted for one of these polls named Margaret. She was 80 years old. She had said to the pollsters she definitely wasn’t getting a vaccine. So I got her number and I called her up and we had a good chat for 30 minutes. Why did she tell you? Well, she told me that she is staying home. She is wearing masks everywhere she goes. She gets as much food and other essentials through drive through. So she’s worried about covid. She’s very worried. She’s very worried. She’s not as worried as some of her friends. She said that one of her friends hangs up the phone if Margaret gets on the phone and coughs her friend, is that scared of getting getting covid. But she’s not a skeptic. She’s a believer. And that was surprising to me, someone who’s 80 and had all these pre-existing conditions as she rattled off for me that she did not want to get a vaccine. Even when I reminded her that President Trump, who she was a loyal supporter of his administration, helped shepherd these vaccines to market, he got a vaccine himself just a few weeks ago that did not sway her. She was spooked by how fast the vaccines have been developed. And nothing I was asking her seemed to throw her off that position.

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S1: Hmm. I noticed that a lot of the people you spoke with, they only wanted to use their first names. And to me, it was meaningful because it speaks to how hard these conversations about getting the vaccine are going to be. If you don’t think you can put your opinion out there and not be attacked for it.

S2: It’s hard to imagine someone changing your mind because, you know, you’re in a defensive crouch, right, on issues of public health where Americans are so eager to get this pandemic done with. And there have been theories aplenty for the past year about why the virus spread and who’s to blame, their fingers being pointed on every level of government all the way down to voters pointing the fingers at each other. I can understand that fear. And I can also understand when The Washington Post comes calling, there are folks who might be willing to have this conversation with their doctor. They don’t necessarily want it on the front page of the Post so as trying to be sympathetic. And I didn’t push hard on getting last names, as I might have for a different kind of story.

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S1: Not everyone you spoke to who was a Republican who was hesitant about the vaccine brought it back to President Trump or not all of them voted for President Trump. But I do think it’s important that we just take a moment and acknowledge how important Trump is to most of the people you talk to and how his own journey when it comes to vaccines, it just sort of makes clear, like if he’s a trusted source for you, his back and forth over vaccines. You can see how it would be confusing for someone because Trump himself always was vaccine hesitant. Generally, you know, he’d talked about an autism link to vaccines before he was president, which, of course, has been disproven. And then once covid happened, he kind of seesawed back and forth saying it wasn’t serious. It’s just the flu. And then he himself got covid went to the hospital, but then he came out and said, I’m stronger for it. So he has this kind of back and forth relationship.

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S2: Yeah, I think back and forth is almost generous to him, he has been at least on vaccines, he has been vaccine skeptical for all the reasons you lay it out. And even more. I was talking to some former Trump officials who worked closely with the president, President Trump, and they made the point that just getting him to get the flu vaccine was a real effort, the flu vaccine, which has been around for decades. So he’s he’s a guy who is not easily convinced that vaccines are necessary. The incredible irony that perhaps the most vaccine hesitant president we’ve had is the president who is in charge of this vaccine breakthrough and rollout. But with Trump talking about the vaccine wasn’t a public health issue to him. It was really in context of look at this political victory, never let them forget this was us.

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S3: We did this. And the distribution is moving along according to our plan, and it’s moving along really well. We had the military, what they’ve done, our generals and all of the people, what they’ve done is incredible.

S1: But remember, you know, we took care of a lot of people, including I guess you mentioned that when you spoke to one of these Trump voters whose vaccine hesitant and you brought up, you know, Trump helped develop the vaccine. It didn’t seem to move her. Why not? Do you think so?

S2: I brought it up with every voter that I talked to. Some were more amenable than others to Trump’s involvement. One gentleman told me, well, that does make me think twice now that you bring it up. But Margaret, the lady that I think you’re referencing, she said Trump didn’t develop the vaccine. Scientist did it, but then she made clear, she said, you know, and I know one thing, Joe Biden didn’t do it. So it’s it exists in this weird space of Trump. Supporters think that Trump was wronged by the media, not just around coronavirus, but certainly in how the pandemic was portrayed. A lot of them believe that the pandemic was used in a way to damage Trump politically and the vaccines. Trump isn’t getting the credit that perhaps he deserves, but yet the vaccine itself is still not Trump’s creation. And a number of folks said to me he should get the vaccine. He’s out there doing all this risky behavior. He doesn’t wear a mask. One guy told me, you know, Trump is as youthful and reckless. This person said so, yeah, he needs a vaccine. Me, I’m staying home and I’m doing everything that I should be doing to avoid coronavirus. It’s worked for a year. Why do I need to be first in line or third in line or tenth of mine to go get the vaccine? Maybe I’ll go get it in a year.

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S1: Just in the past week or so, we’ve seen Trump, you know, encouraging folks to get a vaccine. He he said this at CPAC, the conservative political action meeting. It shows you how painful that vaccine shot is. So everybody go get your shot. But then at the same time that he said that we learned that when Trump himself was vaccinated, he didn’t want it filmed. Is that meaningful to you? Do you think that would have made a difference for some of the voters you talked to to see the president, the person that they trust, get the vaccine?

S2: Honestly, Mary, I do think it would have made a difference. I think the imagery of Trump with his sleeves rolled up, getting the shot. As much as folks play it off Trump’s involvement and said it didn’t really change their mind, images are powerful and that’s an image that we’re not going to have. The fact that Trump got it so quietly and didn’t want to put it on video, didn’t want to memorialize in some way strikingly different than so many other officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, Tony Falchi, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris. Trump stands apart for his unwillingness to turn his vaccination into a public health moment.

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S1: Is there any movement to get Trump to do an ad about the vaccine to try to reach people even though he didn’t film himself getting it?

S2: That’s such a great question. And that is one that I have been asking, too, so far doesn’t appear that Trump is going to be involved. Some of that is the Biden administration very much wants to separate itself from the Trump administration. There are some officials I talked to in the Bush administration who said, you know, we will we will do whatever it takes to reach as many Americans as possible. But there’s a difference between saying that to a reporter and actually going through the move of trying to enlist Trump, who for his own sake, very much does not want to help the Biden administration. And the faster people get vaccinated and the more that this campaign looks successful, that credit will politically accrue to Biden, not to Trump, despite all the things the Trump administration did before the Biden team took over.

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S1: Yeah, it’s funny. I think about it. I think about the fact that Trump has recently, you know, told Republicans they can’t use his image without paying him for it. And I was like, this guy needs money just to give him the money. And you might reach some of these folks with an ad.

S2: How much how much would you be willing to pay Donald Trump to do a public service announcement to Americans to get vaccinated?

S1: That’s a great question. I mean, the answer is zero dollars. The problem is the kind of thing that people can do for free, right? Yeah, totally.

S2: I mean, this is what this is what leaders do. There was a moment that I’ll always remember a health secretary named Tom Price. Really the last act he did in politics was he went and got his flu shot. This was right before Trump fired him. Price was in the middle of a big scandal involving his chartered jets. And we were covering in Politico. He knew that appearing for this event was going to be a media circus, and it was. And yet he still wasn’t got the shot. So there is a real history of political leaders rolling up their sleeves and being vaccinated in hopes of educating Americans. Trump didn’t want to do it.

S1: I was struck by the fact that many of the Republicans you spoke with had a kind of supercharged, individualistic response to this vaccine. And I don’t I don’t necessarily mean selfish. I just mean self directed. Like they’ve done their own research. And they found that they doubted the vaccine or some of them and even had covid and they didn’t think it was so bad. And it’s just the reactions of people who are purely making the decision for themselves. And it made me wonder if the messaging around the vaccine needed to change. Mm hmm.

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S2: So there was a campaign unveiled a few weeks ago by the private sector, led by a group called the Ad Council. They are the industry consortium that has made public health ads dating back decades. If you know Smokey the Bear, that was an ad council creation. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. That was the ad council and so on. They are experts at public health messaging. And the campaign that they came out with is called It’s Up to You, which I initially took as, oh, this is this is a call for individual responsibility. It’s up. It’s up to me. It’s up to marry. It’s up to every listener to go get vaccinated. But when I asked about that, they said, no, the goal is not convincing people that it’s their responsibility. They’re trying to acknowledge the hesitancy. So it’s up to you. Mary, if you want to go get a shot, it’s my choice.

S1: Yeah. Yeah, it’s up to you. Do you think the new CDC guidelines will help at all? Like I was talking to a neighbor of mine and he’s vaccine hesitant, hasn’t gotten vaccinated, even though he’s an essential worker. And one of the things he said to me was, well, I just saw the CDC guidelines and they say, you can see your friends if you get the vaccine. So maybe now I’ll get the vaccine. And I thought, huh, I hadn’t thought about the guidelines themselves creating a push.

S2: I think it’s possible and plausible that the CDC guidelines are going to motivate behavior change and also because the CDC guidelines that are telling Americans, if you’ve been vaccinated, you can do more things. Those foreshadow further lifting of lockdowns, lifting of restrictions and regulations, maybe in the private sector as more people get vaccinated. I do think that might be the nudge that some Americans need who have been hesitant so far.

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S1: After the break, how do you craft a public health message that works for white Republicans? And if you can’t reach them, what does that mean for the spread of the virus? Targeting white Republicans might be a new thing for public health experts, but in D.C., there are plenty of pollsters walking around who know just how to do it. So Dan Diamond called up one of those guys, Frank Luntz, famous, ubiquitous Republican pollster. You probably seen his focus groups after debates and big speeches. It turns out Luntz is doing a lot of surveys right now to get the messaging right around the covid vaccines.

S4: One thing he’s found, Mary, is just around the messages that he believes work when reaching out to wary Americans, for instance. This wasn’t a mystery, but I’d written about it a week or two ago. Luntz and team found that saying emergency use authorization. That’s the technical term for what the Food and Drug Administration decided with the vaccine. They didn’t approve the vaccine. They gave it emergency authorization. That that alarms Americans kind of understandably when you think about it like saying those words, his early findings have focused around how do we communicate about the vaccine? How do we acknowledge people’s hesitation in a way that doesn’t make them feel ashamed, but helps win them over to the cause of public health? His ongoing work is around winning over those holdout Republicans who say they’re on the fence and once is going to get a number of them together for a Zoome virtual focus group, he’s going to have Republican politicians and other prominent figures potentially join. The goal is to come up with some messages that will reach Republican holdouts. They’ll be doing polling and testing on that in the weeks to come.

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S1: Yeah, stood out to me that he’s finding all of these. Little nooks and crannies of understanding how people want to talk about the vaccine that I hadn’t even thought of, like people prefer the word vaccine to jab, which I guess makes sense. Job sounds like you’re stabbing me with something, but I just hadn’t even thought about it.

S4: Yeah, I thought that polling, which Luntz did with a public health group called the Moment Foundation was particularly interesting because I’m so in the weeds on health care and we care so much about either getting the terminology right, like around the FDA or using synonyms sometimes in our stories to not have to say the word vaccine over and over and over again. Also, it’s very hard to find synonyms for vaccination. Like we have inoculation. We have shot, you know, in a three thousand word story. It’s very hard to come up with new words. But the the messaging that Luntz found is centering in on things like family if you get the shot. So you’ll be able to spend more time with your family. That matters a lot more than getting the shot so the economy can come back because making it really personal.

S1: So here’s my question. Can the United States reach herd immunity without these groups of white Republicans getting vaccinated?

S4: There are a couple of ways to ride herd immunity. One is everybody gets sick. Another is everyone gets vaccinated. I guess the third is some people get sick and get immunity that way and others get vaccinated and we get to a level of immunity that makes the virus hard to spread. But if you’re asking me, can we get to a place where public health experts want us to get to where Tony Fouchier said we might need 90 percent of the population vaccinated. If I’m doing back of the envelope math, Donald Trump got almost seventy five million votes. If about one third of adult Republicans don’t want to get the vaccine, that’s twenty five million. So maybe 10 percent of all adults in the country could fall into this bucket of they don’t want a vaccine. And that’s not including the communities of color where there still is vaccine hesitancy. It’s a real problem. Could we still get to herd immunity with enough other people getting vaccinated and people who don’t get vaccinated? Maybe they get sick and develop immunity that way. Sure. But that’s that’s a less ideal because the more people who get sick with the coronavirus, the higher likelihood it is that mutated forms of the coronavirus will emerge. If I’m sick and I didn’t get the vaccine and I’ve got it in my system for days or weeks, the virus can develop mutations that might emerge and make it harder for the vaccines in circulation to stop the new mutated form of coronavirus from spreading.

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S1: Yeah, and I guess I worry that we could end up having herd immunity some places and not others. And those people who are vaccinated who feel like they’re safe, are traveling. And then you go to a place, get a mutated version of the coronavirus or get the coronavirus and it mutates inside you. And then you have something that’s harder to stop. I think that’s the fear of public health experts, too. Yeah, and we might have to keep getting vaccinated. That’s the thing I keep thinking about, which is we have these new variants. We may have to get booster shots. This might be something where we’re going to have to keep messaging this for a while. And I guess you can think about that as, OK, we’ll have more opportunities to meet people and convince people and show people how things work. But there are also more opportunities for things to fall through the cracks.

S2: Right. And some of the Republican voters that I talked to even made that point that they they’ve heard we might need to be vaccinated every year like a flu shot. So several of them said, why should I be first in line to get this really covid vaccine when I’ll have to come back in six months, nine months next year? Why don’t I just wait until next year? So the reality of needing to get vaccinated regularly against covid, which seems to be where we’re heading, that is being used by some holdouts as a reason not to get vaccinated at all.

S5: Diane Dimond, thank you so much for joining me, Mary, it’s always a pleasure.

S2: I love what next? And I’ll be listening to all the episodes moving forward.

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S5: Diane Dimond is a reporter at The Washington Post, and that’s the show. Before we go, I got a quick favor to ask when I think about the last year and what was common to just about everyone’s experience. I think of loss, whether that was a lost job, lost time with friends or even losing someone you loved to the coronavirus. So I want to hear from you about what you lost this year. Leave me a message. Two zero two eight eight eight two five eight eight. What Next is produced by Kamal Dilshad Davis Land, Daniel Hewitt, Mary Wilson and Ilana Schwartz. We are led by Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedict. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter. I’m at Maria’s desk. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.