David Paleologos, USA TODAY
Published 10:04 a.m. ET Sept. 4, 2020
Approving a vaccine in the U.S. usually takes years, but COVID-19 vaccines are moving through in record time. What does that mean?
On Aug. 27, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield sent a letter to the nation’s governors, informing them to be ready for COVID-19 vaccine distribution sites being open as early as Nov. 1—only 8 weeks away and two days before election day. The letter urges governors across the country to do everything in their power to eliminate hurdles that might get in the way of vaccine distribution in November.
The conventional thinking on a COVID-19 vaccine has always been that if a vaccine is discovered people will fly more, attend large concerts and games, eat in restaurants, ride public transportation, and everything will be hunky-dory. Kids will be in schools, no masks will be necessary, and the stock market and economy will be unstoppable. America as we know it will come roaring back for all the world to see.
But what if people don’t take the vaccine? What then?
That question was put to the test in our most recent national Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll of 1,000 registered voters. According to the poll, just 27% of voters would take the vaccine right away, 44% would wait until others have taken it, and 23% would not take the vaccine at all.
That’s not a healthy start. If just 1 in 4 Americans takes the vaccine, the other three fourths of the country are still at risk. Picture unvaccinated citizens walking around, carrying and transmitting the virus—and giving it extra opportunities to mutate and potentially reinfect others.
However, that 27% of vaccine-takers is an average of all registered voters and only shows us a limited picture. Among other key subsets of registered voters, the willingness to take the vaccine right away is lower, including: independents (19%), young people ages 18-34 (19%), Latinx voters (17%), households earning less than $20,000 per year (17%), and African-Americans (15%).
If parents are reluctant, it sets up a showdown with local school districts who may mandate that school-aged children take the vaccine for admittance to school. Sure enough, among those households with school-aged children, only 18% will take the vaccine right away.
We then asked voters whether or not they would take the vaccine if the federal government mandated it. On this issue, the country is divided, according to the poll. Overall, if a vaccine is mandated by the government, exactly 50% say they would take the vaccine, but a sizable 41% said they would not.
Once again, those same key voting blocs came in more anti-vaccine than all registered voters. Some 49% of independents who would not take the vaccine, along with 51% of households with school-aged children and 54% of African-Americans. That’s an interesting common thread through three voting groups who often disagree politically. Among African-Americans, Biden led Trump 82% to 4%. Among households with school-aged children, Trump led Biden 45% to 40%, and among independents, Biden led Trump 42% to 36%. Yet, these segments of the electorate are all saying they won’t take the vaccine, even if mandated by the government.
My take: we are witnessing the evolution of a citizenry that is growing distrustful of our government and its institutions. African-Americans are weary of a government whose institutions and policies have either historically ignored or worked against them. Independents lack faith in our two party system, which increasingly produces candidates that are more polarized and speak less to their moderate views. Parents, for their part, might simply be looking at the COVID-19 mortality rate for young people and saying “it’s not worth the risk that the vaccine leads to side effects.”
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This poses a problem for Joe Biden and Donald Trump. If Biden insists in the upcoming debate that everyone take the vaccine immediately, he risks losing the support of a portion of his most loyal base—African-Americans. It could cost him much needed electoral support in key states. If Trump and the CDC require a government-mandated vaccine, he risks losing the marginal support he currently has among households with school-aged children—they will not want Trump telling them how to run their families.
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Which takes us to independents, the third point in the Triangle of Mistrust. Independents slightly favor Biden, but the number of independents undecided between Trump and Biden is double the average (14 percent versus 7 percent). That makes vaccine policy a campaign issue, and one that will cause the Trump and Biden camps to conduct extensive research and focus groups to build and brand a message that crosses vastly different demographics.
What makes the mandatory vaccine question so interesting is that it threads values from both parties and resembles bits and pieces of arguments about liberty, the Constitution, one’s obligation to his or her neighbors, and what it means to have a healthy society.
David Paleologos is director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.
It takes a lot of people to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Volunteers may be one of the most important.
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