How Frank Luntz, Chris Christie, and Five Simple Facts Changed Skeptical Trump Voters' Minds on COVID Vaccines
COVID-19 vaccines have become politicized, and we are all to blame. Right-wing media downplayed the severity of the disease and hyperbolized government interventions. Left-wing media blared panic-inducing reports which convinced 41% of Democrats that the COVID hospitalization rate is greater than 50% (it's actually closer to 5%). YouTube provocateurs incorrectly claimed the available vaccines are harmful. Twitter mobs shamed people for not wearing masks outdoors, even though there's little evidence it's necessary. These inane acts were all fueled by ideology.
As a result, with 142,692,987 Americans vaccinated as of April 28 – 54.5% of the adult population – daily vaccinations have begun to markedly fall. Despite wide vaccine availability, we're simply running out of willing people to lend their arms.
Those unwilling are mostly Trump voters. Numerous polls have found that around 40% of Republicans will likely never receive the COVID-19 vaccine. For Democrats, that rate is less than 10%.
This drastic divergence is not because Trump voters are stupid and Biden voters are enlightened, it's because COVID vaccination has become ensnared in ideology. To get more Americans – particularly Republicans – vaccinated, so we can end pandemic-related restrictions, stop wearing masks, and save tens of thousands of lives, we need to disentangle politics from the vaccine.
Longtime Republican strategist and pollster Frank Luntz may have found a way to do it. With help from the de Beaumont Foundation, he recently conducted one of his signature focus groups with 19 vaccine-hesitant Republican Trump voters, attempting to convince them to change their minds and get the vaccine. Luntz shared his thoughts on the experience with the radio show This American Life.
Early on in the discussion, he was dismayed and felt the effort was doomed to fail. It seemed like nothing would change the participants' minds. But two and half hours later, Luntz was amazed at the outcome. Every participant said they were much more likely to get the COVID-19 vaccine than they were beforehand.
This American Life senior editor David Kestenbaum and Luntz felt that two key moments turned the tide. The first was when former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden shared five simple facts:
One, if you get infected with the virus it will go all over your body and stay there for at least a week and be much more likely to cause you long-term problems than the vaccine. Two, if you get the vaccine, it will prime your immune system, then the vaccine is gone. It will not be with you anymore. Three, more than 95% of the doctors who have been offered this vaccine have gotten it as soon as they can. Four, the more we vaccinate, the faster we can get back to growing our economy and getting jobs. And five, if people get vaccinated, we're going to save at least a hundred thousand lives of Americans who would otherwise be killed by COVID.
The second moment was when former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie shared his personal experience with COVID-19. He told the focus group how young, healthy Hope Hicks, Trump's former White House communications director, was stricken with COVID for ten days. He shared with them how his 64-year-old cousin and her healthy, 63-year-old husband both passed away from the disease. And he shared with them some self-deprecating honesty.
"Politicians screw up almost everything we touch. We really do. So I understand why people are skeptical. But you know what? The scientists and the doctors are saying this is the right thing to do, so since I don't know anything about medicine, I'm gonna follow their advice," Christie said.
Okay, so what are the takeaways? Is there any hope of translating the impressive results from Luntz' focus group to American society as a whole? Luntz thinks so. To change hesitant minds on the COVID-19 vaccine, the mantra should be "educate, don't indoctrinate". Give straightforward facts. Be genuine. Be respectful. Don't talk down to others. Treat them as you would like to be treated.
He also thinks that general practitioners should be reaching out to their patients to talk about the benefits of the vaccine. Ultimately, vaccination is a medical decision. People should be permitted to make that decision with their physician's guidance - not the government's.
At the conclusion of the focus group, Luntz shared an uplifting message that should resonate with all Americans.
"When they put that needle in my arm for the first vaccine I really felt like this was the pain of life, and I am so grateful to our medical professionals and so grateful to our pharmaceutical companies, and American ingenuity. I wish that you all could feel what I felt, because this to me was the ultimate definition of freedom; it's the ultimate definition of liberty; it's the ultimate definition of the country, that I'm so lucky to be born here... Life is precious. Life is special. Let's do everything we can to preserve it."