COVID’s partisan pattern is growing more extreme.
During the early months of COVID-19 vaccinations, several major demographic groups lagged in receiving shots, including Black Americans, Latino Americans and Republican voters.
More recently, the racial gaps — while still existing — have narrowed. The partisan gap, however, continues to be enormous. A Pew Research Center poll last month found that 86% of Democratic voters had received at least one shot, compared with 60% of Republican voters.
The political divide over vaccinations is so large that almost every reliably blue state now has a higher vaccination rate than almost every reliably red state.
Because the vaccines are so effective at preventing serious illness, COVID deaths are also showing a partisan pattern. COVID is still a national crisis, but the worst forms of it are increasingly concentrated in red America.
As is often the case, state-by-state numbers can understate the true pattern, because every state has both liberal and conservative areas. When you look at the county level, the gap can look even starker.
When COVID was bluer
It’s worth remembering that COVID followed a different pattern for more than a year after its arrival in the United States.
Despite widespread differences in mask wearing — and scientific research suggesting that masks reduce the virus’s spread — the pandemic was if anything worse in blue regions. Masks evidently were not powerful enough to overcome other regional differences, like the amount of international travel that flows through major metro areas, which tend to be politically liberal.
Vaccination has changed the situation. The vaccines are powerful enough to overwhelm other differences between blue and red areas.
Some left-leaning communities — like many suburbs of New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., as well as much of New England — have such high vaccination rates that even the unvaccinated are partly protected by the low number of cases.
Conservative communities, on the other hand, have been walloped by the highly contagious delta variant.
Since delta began circulating widely in the United States, COVID has exacted a horrific death toll on red America: In counties where Donald Trump received at least 70% of the vote, the virus has killed about 47 out of every 100,000 people since the end of June, according to Charles Gaba, a health care analyst.
In counties where Trump won less than 32% of the vote, the number is about 10 out of 100,000.
And the gap will probably keep growing.
Why is this happening?
Some of the vaccination gap stems from the libertarian instincts of many Republicans. “They understand freedom as being left alone to make their own choices, and they resent being told what to do,” William Galston has written in The Wall Street Journal.
But philosophy is only a partial explanation. In much of the rest of the world, vaccine attitudes do not break down along right-left lines, and some conservative leaders have responded effectively to the pandemic. So have a few Republican governors in the United States. “It didn’t have to be this way,” German Lopez of Vox has written.
What distinguishes the United States is a conservative party — the Republican Party — that has grown hostile to science and empirical evidence in recent decades. A conservative media complex, including Fox News, Sinclair Broadcast Group and various online outlets, echoes and amplifies this hostility. Trump took the conspiratorial thinking to a new level, but he did not create it.
“With very little resistance from party leaders,” my colleague Lisa Lerer wrote this summer, many Republicans “have elevated falsehoods and doubts about vaccinations from the fringes of American life to the center of our political conversation.”
‘Owning the left’
With the death count rising, at least a few Republicans appear to be worried about what their party and its allies have sown.
In an article this month for Breitbart, the right-wing website formerly run by Steve Bannon, John Nolte argued that the partisan gap in vaccination rates was part of a liberal plot. Liberals like President Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Howard Stern have tried so hard to persuade people to get vaccinated, because they know that Republican voters will do the opposite of whatever they say, Nolte wrote.
His argument is certainly bizarre, given that Democratic politicians have been imploring all Americans to get vaccinated and many Republican politicians have not. But Nolte did offer a glimpse at a creeping political fear among some Republicans.
“Right now, a countless number of Trump supporters believe they are owning the left by refusing to take a lifesaving vaccine,” he wrote. “In a country where elections are decided on razor-thin margins, does it not benefit one side if their opponents simply drop dead?”
How might more conservative Americans be persuaded to get vaccinated?
One intriguing anecdote involves the football team at the University of Mississippi, which is entirely vaccinated even though the state has one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates. Coaches there emphasized the tangible, short-term costs of getting COVID, rather than the more remote chance of death: The players might have to miss a game, and the team might have to forfeit it, if they tested positive.
A related message is duty, Timothy Carney has written in The Washington Examiner. If Carney had refused to get vaccinated, he explained, he would have risked loading more work onto his wife, his colleagues and his partner in teaching Sunday school, as well as forced his children to miss school.
In The Atlantic, Olga Khazan has argued that fear remains the best motivator, based on her interviews with Tucker Carlson viewers who nonetheless have been vaccinated. And Daniel Darling, an evangelical author, has said that one-on-one conversations encouraging conservatives to talk with their doctors will have more success than any top-down campaign.
Then again, Darling’s message also shows why the vaccination gap exists in the first place. After he wrote an op-ed in USA Today about his decision to get vaccinated, Darling’s employer — NRB, an association of Christian broadcasters — fired him.