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GOP presidential hopefuls use Trump's COVID record to court vaccine skeptics

Darius Tahir, Daniel Chang, KFF Health News on

Published in News & Features

Former President Donald Trump often seems proud to advertise his administration’s record on speedily developing COVID-19 vaccines.

On the campaign trail to win another term in the White House, though, he also has knocked the use of those very vaccines. In October, for example, he unleashed a barrage of social media attacks on Ron DeSantis’ pandemic record by reposting claims that the Florida governor — who is running against him in the Republican presidential primaries — was too active in vaccinating Sunshine State residents.

In a further twist, Trump simultaneously circulated an MSNBC article suggesting DeSantis wasn’t vaccinating his constituents enough.

Trump’s tap dance — touting Operation Warp Speed’s success at developing vaccines while criticizing vaccine use — is emblematic of how pandemic politics are intensifying broader vaccine politics. Republican presidential candidates currently trailing the former president in polls are contorting their messaging to court the party’s vaccine-skeptical voters. No one embraces, without qualification, the utility of a public health measure that has saved millions of lives.

Like Trump, even the more establishment candidates can’t seem to avoid embracing the anti-vaccine leanings of the party’s base. Take Nikki Haley, who formerly served as governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the United Nations and has been rising in the polls. In the waning days of the Trump administration, she was pro-vaccine. But by the end of November 2021, in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, she repeated dubious anti-vaccine claims: for instance, that the vaccine could undermine a woman’s fertility. (Studies consistently show no effect.)

The GOP has gained the allegiance of “a minority of people who feel very strongly about the safety of vaccines,” Robert Blendon, a Harvard professor of public health, told KFF Health News. Presidential candidates are trying to use this sensibility as “a cultural issue” to signal distrust in scientists, other experts, and government authority in general, he said.

 

The resulting dynamic carries the risk of reaching beyond the current election cycle to affect public health policy in years to come, leading to lower rates among schoolchildren and seniors of vaccinations that protect them from measles, shingles, and HPV. Even as candidates try to weaponize this rhetoric, they’ve had little luck in changing the former president’s front-runner status.

A recent KFF survey of adults about their plans to get vaccinated against the flu, respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, and COVID found that partisanship remains a key predictor of how people view vaccines. Confidence in the safety of the updated COVID vaccines split sharply along party lines, with more than 8 in 10 Democrats saying they trust the new shots, compared with 1 in 3 Republicans.

But unease about COVID or the vaccines is not Republican primary voters’ top issue — Blendon said concerns around the border, crime, and inflation are — and it’s not clear vaccine-focused attacks hurt Trump.

“I didn’t like his response to COVID,” says an Iowa business owner featured in a critical ad from a well-funded political action committee that questioned Trump’s handling of the pandemic. “I thought he probably got led a little bit by the bureaucrats,” he says, hitting Trump on his bragging about the development of the vaccine and contrasting Trump unfavorably with certain governors the man in the ad thought performed better against COVID. (Images of DeSantis, otherwise unnamed, flash by.)

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©2023 KFF Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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