Data Wonk

The Paradox of Anti-Vaxxers

The vaccines were developed under Trump. So why do his supporters oppose them?

By - Jun 23rd, 2021 12:55 pm
COVID-19 vaccine. Pixabay License Free for commercial use No attribution required

COVID-19 vaccine. (Pixabay License).

In Wisconsin, and the nation as a whole, COVID-19 has been relaxing its grip. Both the number of new cases and deaths has continued to drop. The current seven-day average of new cases is 58, compared to 95 a week earlier. One has to go back to March of last year to see numbers this low.

Deaths from the disease have also seen continued declines. The most recent figures for Wisconsin show a seven-day average of two. As recently as a week before the average was seven. Again, one has to go back to last March to see similar numbers.

One factor contributing to this decline in both cases and deaths is the increasing availability in Wisconsin and the United States of COVID-19 vaccines. But support for the vaccines has run into a strident anti-vaccination campaign.

The next chart explores the connection between vaccinations and ideology and partisanship. Each dot represents a state. The horizontal axis shows the percentage of the two-candidate vote that chose Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. The further right a state appears on this scale, the more the states’ voters supported Biden over Donald Trump. By the same token, the further left on this scale the stronger support for Trump was.

The vertical axis, based on data from the Mayo Clinic, shows the estimated percentage of the state’s population that has received at least one dose of vaccine. The dotted line on the chart is the trend line, the best straight line to fit the relationship between a state’s vote in the election and the percentage of the voters who have at least started the vaccination process.

Vaccinations vs. election returns

Vaccinations vs. election returns

Although there is considerable scatter in the data, taken together there is a strong relationship between the percentage of residents vaccinated and the state’s vote: the higher the percent supporting Biden, the higher the percent getting vaccinated. Computing the coefficient of determination, shown as R2 on the graph, shows the percentage of variation explained by the model: the trend line shows it accounts for two thirds of the variation.

In some ways, this connection between partisan votes and opposition to vaccine runs counter to past history and is puzzling. In the past, opposition to vaccines has been bipartisan, coming from both ends of the ideological spectrum, and reflecting suspicion of science on the part of both ideological wings.

Liberal Oregon, for instance, is considered a hot box of opposition to earlier vaccines. Robert Kennedy, Jr., the late president’s nephew, is the best-known anti-vaxxer operating from the left. “Governments love pandemics for the same reason they love wars,” he has said. “It gives them the ability to control the population that the population would otherwise never accept.”

The connection between support for Trump and opposition to the COVID-19 vaccines is also puzzling because the speedy development of highly effective vaccines is the one outstanding success story stemming from the Trump years. Although Trump has at times complained that he has not received proper credit for the vaccines, he has been surprisingly low-key in promoting their use. Although Trump was eventually vaccinated, he did it later than most top officials and with minimal publicity. It is as if Barack Obama had actively discouraged enrollment in Obamacare.

If Trump has been tepid in supporting the vaccines developed during his administration, many of his supporters are ferocious in their opposition. As an experiment I tried typing “are covid vaccines dangerous” into a search engine. About half of the first responses came from mainstream sources, including the Center for Disease Control, Johns Hopkins University, a medical doctor, and members of the mainstream press including mainstream media like USA Today, Bloomberg, and the Jerusalem Post.

The other half were wild. Their headlines give a taste of their claims:

“Covid Vaccine is a dangerous sham.” from something called The Liberty Ledger. Among its claims: “the US has had a patent on SARS and COVID, in general, since 2003.”

“Covid-19 Vaccines Are Weapons of Mass Destruction – and Could Wipe out the Human Race”

“COVID Vaccines: Needless, Ineffective and Dangerous.”

“The Hushed Long-Term Risks of COVID-19 Vaccines”

“RED ALERT! Why do so few people understand the true FDA status of the extremely dangerous and risky COVID-19 vaccines?”

“A COVID-19 vaccine is unconstitutional and dangerous” (from Hillsdale College. Liberty University has also weighed in opposing the vaccines.)

In addition, the liberal Media Matters quotes a guest on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News as describing the COVID-19 vaccine as “downright dangerous. And I warn you, if you go along these lines, you are going to go to your doom. And it’s so, so unnecessary.”

Certainly, many factors, not just partisanship, have affected the spread of COVID-19. For example, Trump-supporting states tend to have warmer climates and sparser populations, factors that reduce its spread. Blue state governments, on the hand, were more likely to push the use of masks and vaccinations. To some extent these advantages and disadvantages tend to cancel out each other.

That said, Biden-favoring states, as a group, had lower COVID-19 caseloads, as shown in the graph below. As before, the horizontal line shows the percentage vote for Biden. The vertical line shows the total number of cases as a percentage of population from the start of the pandemic. Compared to the relationship of vaccines to vote, that of cases to vote is much weaker. It appears that about 30% of the variation results from the trend.

COVID-19 cases vs. election returns from start of pandemic

COVID-19 cases vs. election returns from start of pandemic

The relationship between Trump and his hard-core supporters has been described as cult-like. The members of a cult accept claims from the cult leader without question. This is illustrated by Trump’s supporters of his claim, without any evidence, that he won the election.

But at some point, the cult leader becomes the prisoner of the cult members’ expectations. Perhaps this helps explain why Trump has not done more to promote COVID-19 vaccination. Despite being developed during the Trump administration, the vaccines are seen as products of the deep state by his supporters.

Categories: Data Wonk, Health, Politics

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