Trust in COVID-19 vaccines aligns with political parties, new national study finds

Supporters of Joe Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci were significantly more likely to get vaccinated than backers of President Donald Trump, researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers found. AP Photo by Ted S. Warren

Republicans and Democrats who trust Joe Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci to manage the pandemic are significantly more likely to seek a COVID-19 vaccine than those who trust President Donald Trump, according to a poll that has been tracking trust in public leaders since April.

In a twist, the new survey by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers found that Republicans who trust the Democratic presidential nominee were more likely (79 percent) to get the vaccine than members of Biden’s party (71 percent) and Independents (67 percent) who trusted him.

David Lazer is a university distinguished professor of political science and computer and information sciences with joint appointments in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities and the Khoury College of Computer Sciences. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Paradoxically, more Democrats (65 percent) who express higher faith in the president’s management of the health crisis would seek a vaccine than his fellow Republicans (53 percent).

The findings defy perceived political tribalism and suggest that some voters identify with one party in name only.

“You may still have some old Democrats who still call themselves a Democrat but who pretty much support Republicans,” says David Lazer, university distinguished professor of political science and computer and information sciences at Northeastern, and one of the researchers who conducted the study.

On the other side, GOP voters who throw their support to Biden “may be affluent and well-educated, such as Republicans in Massachusetts and Connecticut.”

The broad issue of trust in institutions and individuals that manage the COVID-19 vaccine was the subject of a rolling series of surveys of 21,000 U.S. residents conducted Aug. 7-26. It showed a gradual decline overall in support for politicians, the news media, Congress, and about a dozen other groups.

Surprisingly, researchers found a sharp seven-point drop among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who say they would get vaccinated.

“That’s worrisome because we want more people to be taking the vaccine, not less,” says Lazer.

“It would not have surprised me to see that among Democrats it is falling, but it is interesting that Republicans and independents have declined in equal amounts, despite the fact that you have Trump out there saying the vaccine is coming soon and it’s going to be extremely effective.”

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the latest survey was conducted Aug. 7-26, shortly before the Trump administration sent a letter asking states to speed up approval for coronavirus vaccine distribution sites by Nov. 1, two days before Election Day in the United States.

The news prompted concerns among some public health experts, including Fauci, that the timeline was rushed and unrealistic, and might lead to an improperly vetted treatment for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“The political debate occurring against the backdrop of a presidential election raises concerns that many Americans may be unwilling to accept a vaccine because they do not trust the government or its agencies to prioritize safety and efficacy over politics,” the study found.

The question of just who would accept a vaccine ran along partisan lines.

Those least likely to seek one supported Trump, while Fauci backers, news media followers, and social media users were the most likely to get vaccinated.

In addition to public leaders, researchers looked into the trust levels of 14 other groups, including state and city government, Congress, the news media, financial institutions, and law enforcement, and found that results varied sharply by race, political party, and red and blue states.

Between April and August, for example, there was a 13-point decline of confidence in the White House as an institution (not necessarily the president). Congress as a whole saw an identical 13-point drop too.

Biden’s numbers ticked down just slightly over the April-August timespan, while Trump dropped seven points to 43 percent. Still, the president’s pandemic approval numbers are on an upward trajectory since July, and appear to have reversed months of declines. 

Of all the individuals and groups examined, scientists, medical experts, and doctors were leaps and bounds more popular than ever, with approvals hovering between 85-97 percent, higher than for Trump and Fauci. 

While it is not new to see such high numbers for doctors over politicians in general, what is interesting is that there hasn’t been a bigger partisan divide because, as Lazer explains, “there are people putting the word out there that scientists are part of this conspiracy against Trump.”

“It is definitely notable because we have a more politically partisan world than ever.”

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