Dr Matt Motta
Assistant Professor of Political Science at Oklahoma State University. His research studies the prevalence, origins, and policy consequences of misinformation about politics, public health, and the environment. He is also interested in developing communications-based solutions to combat misinformation acceptance.
Section 1: Policy and political context
- The far-too-normal election
- One pandemic, two Americas and a week-long election day
- Political emotion and the global pandemic: factors at odds with a Trump presidency
- The pandemic did not produce the predominant headwinds that changed the course of the country
- Confessions of a vampire
- COVID-19 and the 2020 election
- The enduring impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on the 2020 elections
- Where do we go from here? The 2020 U.S. presidential election, immigration, and crisis
- A nation divided on abortion?
- Ending the policy of erasure: transgender issues in 2020
- U.S. presidential politics and planetary crisis in 2020
- Joe Biden and America’s role in the world
- President Biden’s foreign policy: engagement, multilateralism, and cautious globalization
- Presidential primary outcomes as evidence of levels of party unity
- A movable force: the armed forces voting bloc
- Guns and the 2020 elections
- Can Biden’s win stop the decline of the West and restore the role of the United States in the world?
In the weeks leading up to the presidential election, President Trump promised Americans on several occasions that a vaccine for the novel coronavirus would be ready for public use by Election Day. The Trump campaign saw accelerated vaccine development as an important campaign talking point – featured in battleground state campaign ads, and touted on several occasions at the first presidential debate. Vaccine experts – including the administration’s CDC director Robert Redfield – cautioned that this timeline was unrealistic. Although Operation Warp Speed enabled the manufacture of vaccines prior to the conclusion of clinical trials, with the hope of beginning the distribution process within one day of approval, experts projected widespread availability months after Election Day.
Nevertheless, the President’s decision to link vaccine development to the election fueled concerns the administration might pressure regulators to cut corners in the approval process. Some scientists worried that the administration might attempt to ease emergency use authorization (EUA) guidelines, which allow vaccines in development to be administered to vulnerable populations before approval for widespread use, in order to facilitate distribution in October. The administration exacerbated these concerns by placing substantial pressure on the FDA to permit doctors to treat sick people with the plasma of recovered coronavirus patients; a promising, yet presently unproven way to fight off the virus more quickly. Likewise, HHS spokesperson Michael Caputo, who formerly served on the President’s 2016 election campaign, was met with scorn after he accused government scientists of prolonging the pandemic in order to advance their personal and political ambitions.
The administration’s decision to tie vaccine development to the election politicized elites discussion of vaccines on the campaign trail. In an interview with CNN in early September, Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris stated that she “would not take [President Trump’s] word” that a vaccine developed before election day would be safe and effective. Worryingly, elite partisan disagreements about vaccine-related issues are also reflected in Americans’ intentions to receive a coronavirus vaccine, once it becomes widely available.
In demographically representative surveys of mass level politicization in vaccination intentions (see the red and blue lines Figure 1). For reference (in gray), I include an indicator of monthly media attention to vaccine politicization — i.e., the total count of newspaper and television stories coverage of President Trump’s Election Day vaccine promise.
I find that, at the onset of the pandemic in April 2020, over 70% of both Republicans and Democrats indicated that they would be willing to receive a vaccine. However, as the pandemic progressed, Republicans’ intentions declined gradually, potentially a result of waning concern about the severity of the pandemic – before reverting back to early-pandemic levels (75%) on the eve of Election Day. One could argue Republicans’ fall resurgence could be due in part to an uptick in concern about the pandemic, amid a “Fall Wave” of new infections. Polling averages, however, suggest very little change in public pandemic concern from mid-August to mid-October.
Alternatively, and consistent with the possibility that vaccination intentions became highly politicized, this shift coincides with President Trump doubling down on his promise of a vaccine within “a few weeks” (i.e., in the first Presidential Debate), as well as Vice President Pence’s assertion, in the Vice Presidential Debate, that Senator Harris’ skepticism about the safety of a vaccine approved by the Trump administration might “undermine public vaccine confidence.” The shift also follows a major spike in media attention to President Trump’s Election Day vaccine promise (see: gray shaded line).
Democrats, on the other hand, remained enthusiastic in their vaccination intentions throughout the summer; with over 80% reporting that they planned to vaccinate by June. However, Democrats’ intentions began to drop off in the last week of August; just days after President Trump referred to the FDA as “deep state” actors seeking to prevent Americans from receiving a coronavirus vaccine, and put pressure on the agency to authorize unproven therapeutics.
Democrats’ enthusiasm for the vaccine dropped off sharply in the coming months, amid increasing elite polarization about vaccine-related issues and media attention to President Trump’s Election Day promise. By October, just 67%. This means that the partisan subgroup once most likely to vaccinate experienced the steepest decline in vaccine intentions, from late summer into early Fall.
These results, while correlational, nevertheless caution that playing politics with vaccine development can have important and negative public health consequences.
While Democrats’ substantial dropoff in vaccination intentions may have been offset, to some degree, by Republican enthusiasm, Americans’ intentions to vaccinate remained concerningly low; decreasing from 74% in April to 67% in October. Because current epidemiological estimates suggest that as many as 70% of Americans must develop immunity to COVID-19 in order to put the virus’ spread into decline, either by getting vaccinated, or by contracting and recovering from the virus, politicization may extend the amount of time it takes to achieve herd immunity against the disease. Ironically, then, it may be that the President’s decision to guarantee a vaccine before Election Day, aimed at promising a speedy return to “life as usual”, has actually prolonged the time it may take to recover from the pandemic.