As the pandemic hit, most Americans were willing to get vaccinated – then politics happened

Photo: Christian Emmer/Creative Commons

In March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic was new to everyone.  Images of overcrowded hospitals in China and dying patients in Italy produced widespread fear and anxiety.   Would the virus impact the United States?  If so, what would happen next? 

Information was sketchy and policy makers uncertain.  However, government actions foreshadowed the long road ahead. 

On February 3rd, the Trump administration declared a public health emergency.  On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.  President Trump then announced a COVID National Emergency on March 13 and issued a travel ban for 26 European countries.  Six days later, California became the first state to issue a statewide stay at home order.  Finally, on March 27th, Trump signed the CARES Act – a 2.2 trillion dollar economic stimulus and coronavirus aid package.

At that time, nearly 2/3 of Americans reported being  “very” concerned about the coronavirus outbreak – which turned out to be the highest level of concern recorded in 2020.  Moreover, 72% of Americans said the virus unsettled their lives – a whopping 46% increase from a week earlier.  Anxiety also edged higher.  Seventy-nine percent were concerned that they or someone they know would be infected – again, a significant increase from a week before.  Finally, a majority of Americans approved of President’s Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.  

The pandemic was not political. 

Receptivity to vaccination   

For several months into the pandemic, Americans expressed an impressive receptivity to vaccines – see graph below.  Legitimate fears about the unknown virus seemed to overwhelm any doubts about vaccines.  

A record high 72% of the public agreed they would get vaccinated if a vaccine that protects from the coronavirus became available – In late March NIH announced phase 1 clinical trial had begun on the Moderna vaccine.  Even partisans largely agreed.  Democrats (81%), Republicans (69%) and independents (66%) all hit their high mark for willingness to get a COVID-19 vaccine. 

In April, the U.S. passed one million confirmed COVID cases.  And an unprecedented number of Americans filed for unemployment benefits – the highest number of initial claims in history.   In another month, US would pass two million confirmed cases and Johns Hopkins University reported the virus killed more than 100,000 people.        

By late spring, the politics of COVID became increasingly clear.  Democrats strongly supported aggressive public health measures while Republicans focused on the devastating economic consequences of those measures.  

Democrat and Republican governors deployed entirely different strategies to manage the pandemic.  At times, half the country was in lock-down while the other half remained open.  Half the country wore masks and the other half rejected them.  The President clashed regularly with Democrat governors and congressional leaders.  Without question, election year politics destroyed any hope of another bipartisan stimulus package and hardened partisan hostilities. 


Source: Morning Consult Polls


Election Politics

The people follow their leaders.   During the presidential election, the overall share of Americans that were very concerned about the outbreak dropped — as did the share willing to get a vaccine.  In fact, from September to Election Day, less than 50% of Americans expressed a willingness to get a vaccine.   In five short months, receptivity to a COVID vaccine dropped over 20 points! 

As the election loomed, Trump repeatedly downplayed virus dangers, pushing an optimistic outlook even as infections increased.  Negative COVID-19 news could tank an already crippled economy and thereby destroy Trump’s re-election chances.   Republicans in turn grew increasingly skeptical of vaccines.  After all, if the COVID threat was exaggerated, vaccines were not a priority.   By Election Day, half of Republicans were willing to take a vaccine if available – a 19 point drop from April.   

Democrat vaccine receptivity plunged as well – nearly 25 points from 77% in April to 53% in mid-September.  At that time, Joe Biden expressed concerns that the vaccine process could be politicized and cited Trump’s incompetence and dishonesty as reasons to be wary.   “I trust vaccines, I trust scientists, but I don’t trust Donald Trump.” 

Kamala Harris reinforced Biden’s sentiments, questioning Trump’s sincerity about the safety of vaccines.  She also expressed concern about scientists being muzzled by the Trump administration to attain rapid vaccine approval.    

By linking distrust of Trump to vaccine developments, Biden and Harris effectively politicized Democrats’ receptivity to a COVID vaccine.  The vaccination gap between the parties narrowed to a mere 3 points.  Incredibly, partisans were now equally hesitant about taking a COVID vaccine.      

Source: Morning Consult Polls

After the election

With Biden’s victory, Democrat’s willingness to get vaccinated shot up to 65%.  By March 2021, 80% of Democrats agreed to vaccinate.  Republicans’ willingness slowly increased as well but has yet to surpass the high mark set last April. 

Now, with millions of Americans receiving vaccines, vaccine receptivity appears to be headed for record levels.     

Four concluding thoughts

  1. Fear and anxiety make people vigilant.  They rethink their dispositions, scrutinize the familiar, and pay attention to information they had previously dismissed.  Last spring, Americans were anxious and fearful.  And 72% were ready to be vaccinated.  That’s several percentage points above what is required for COVID-19 herd immunity
  2.  Politics makes people blind.  They lean heavily on dispositions and attend to information that confirms what they believe.  Last summer and fall, Americans exhibited extraordinary levels of political engagement.  In a very unusual occurrence, both Democrats and Republicans showed nearly the same diminished levels of receptivity to vaccines – but for different reasons.  The data strongly suggest that competing campaigns were the primary driver of lower receptivity. Trump and Biden cued their loyal followers.  Partisans responded accordingly.  This is nothing new in politics, a phenomenon as ancient as the coronavirus. 
  3. About 25% of the public appears ambivalent about vaccines.   The early pandemic data showed widespread fear and anxiety made this group more receptive – agreeable to become vaccinated.   Overall, nearly ¾ of the public was receptive.  Yet during the presidential election, the ambivalent group grew increasingly hesitant – lowering overall receptivity levels.  There appears to be solid 50% base that embraces vaccines.  Preferences of the ambivalent group change depending on circumstances – adding to or subtracting from the 50% baseline.  Initially, fear pushed up receptivity.  Election politics then drove it down.     
  4. Today, the notable success of the vaccine roll-out is increasing receptivity.  There is nothing more persuasive than achievement.  It draws the skeptical and impresses the reluctant.  Americans love winners.  The winner here is vaccine science.     

4 thoughts on “As the pandemic hit, most Americans were willing to get vaccinated – then politics happened

  1. Conformation Bias is infused in everything we think about today. You do a great job of showing alternative sides to this issue on how the politicization creates polarization

    The most unfortunate part about this is the consequence of this politicization. One side of the isle looked at the spread of Covid-19 with an intentionally, overly optimistic point of view, while touting the “Warp Speed” of the vaccine process, in an attempt to salvage a damaged economy and maintain their position of power .

    The other side was so interested in regaining power, that they were willing to double down on “Identity” politics and the fear of Trump-encouraged vaccines as a cudgel to get more votes.

    Both efforts pull hard against the facts on the ground as well as an individual’s self determination and risk tolerance.

    History will give us a better understanding of this situation years from now. But, the unrest and the distrust that 2020 has generated will take just as long to dissipate, if ever.


  2. Interesting data reflective of the year long battle. It seems it would be fair there occurred much ambivalence during that year with people struggling to grasp the real dimensions of the threat. It appears looking back, as you state, vaccine developers are the big winners.
    It would be interesting to review that year as a sporting game. Both sides, political parties, had to guess at to the seriousness. Then strategize to gain a winning hand. It would be easy to claim one sides guessed correctly but perhaps were forced to take a side. I believe your data hints at how that developed and the final out come. Unfortunately the game was for political win rather then limiting death.


    1. Had not thought about the circumstances this way. In that regard, Democrats “guessed” correctly and Republicans (or rather Trump) did not. It would have been interesting to see Trump lead as Biden does today. If so, would he have lost the election? Similarly, would be fascinating to consider what Biden would have done in Trump’s place. Would Biden have sided so aggressively with public health advisors as his own reelection approached — and the economy slipped into major recession?


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