As President Joe Biden prepares for the next phase of America’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout, there is one strategy he should seriously consider: silence.
Right now, Republicans are the big vaccine group. “The biggest predictor of vaccine reluctance is party identification,” told me Robb Willer, director of the Stanford Polarization and Social Change Lab.
At the state level, that’s clear: the 10 states with the highest vaccination rates all went for Biden in the 2020 elections, while nine of the 10 states with the lowest vaccination rates went for Donald Trump (with the exception of Georgia).
Polarizing the vaccine is a huge challenge for Biden as Republicans are unlikely to listen to him. In fact, a recent study by Willer’s team found that Biden’s advocacy can backfire – making Republicans less likely to say they intend to get vaccinated. Other researchers have found similar results.
It is a reflection of the polarization that has affected all things Covid-19 in the US. Since the pandemic began, Republican figures like Trump have downplayed the risks of the coronavirus. This has led many people to believe that the threat posed by the virus is overrated in the media. And those beliefs continue even as the country nears 600,000 reported Covid-19 deaths.
It also reflects the polarization that has hit America harder in recent decades – from politics to the Oscars.
If Biden is to achieve his goal of vaccinating 70 percent of adults by July 4th, he’ll need at least a few Republicans on board. So what can be done to get this group vaccinated?
Part of the answer is still improving accessibility, from meeting people where they are (including entertainment venues like concerts and bars) to developing a DoorDash-like system that delivers the vaccine to people’s homes brings. There are still some unvaccinated Republicans who want the vaccine and if they have an easier time getting the shot they could go over the line.
A Republican-led outreach campaign may also play a role, though the evidence is mixed. Willer’s study found that unvaccinated Republicans reported 7 percent higher vaccination intentions after being shown that Republican elites were in favor of the vaccines. Other research by the UCLA Covid-19 Health and Politics Project found that a vaccination message from Trump didn’t have much of an impact on Republicans’ intentions to get vaccinated.
Willer argued that an approach that combines a variety of messaging strategies, from television advertising to elite cues, copywriting to deep acquassing, could have a larger, more significant effect. However, this could require, at least in part, the explicit support of Republicans to really move the most reluctant people.
Lynn Vavreck, Senior Investigator for the UCLA Covid-19 Project Health and Politics, told me she was skeptical that any further information or news at this point would be helpful. Instead, it offers incentives for vaccinations. For example, their investigation found that offering $ 100 or telling people they no longer have social distance or need to mask themselves in public if they are vaccinated can persuade Republicans to get the shot.
“Things that actually affect people’s lives,” explained Vavreck, “not just informational things.”
This carrot could be paired with a whip. Surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about a third of those most resistant to vaccines would get the shot if necessary – not necessarily required by law, but by an employer or, for example, to get into restaurants.
The Biden administration could play a role in these approaches and help build or fund them behind the scenes.
But the government probably won’t be able to rely on Biden’s speeches to get America over the vaccine finish line.