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America’s Red-Blue Vaccine Divide

America’s Red-Blue Vaccine Divide June 23, 2021

President Biden set a goal for 70% of American adults to have received a COVID-19 vaccine by July 4. We’re close, but we’re probably not going to reach it.

The problem isn’t availability. The U.S. has more than enough shots for everyone. In fact, we’re arguably hogging the supply, to the point that other nations are growing impatient and angry at us for not giving away our surplus.

The problem is that we’ve all but exhausted the pool of people who are eager for the vaccine. We’re approaching two-thirds of the adult population vaccinated – a milestone in itself, to be sure, and one that should do a lot to stop further spread of the virus – but the holdouts either require intense coaxing, or are just flat-out refusing to get it.

If you look at a state-by-state view, a clearer picture emerges: blue states will meet or exceed this goal, and red states will fall short.

As of Thursday [June 10]’s CDC report, 69.9% of adults in the average Biden-won state have received at least one dose, meaning those states have basically already reached Biden’s goal with more than a little over three weeks to go.

Compare this to the states Biden lost and Donald Trump won, where an average 54.9% of adults have received at least one dose. The Trump-won states aren’t anywhere close to where the Biden-won states are.

As Harry Enten writes, it’s not just whether Biden won or lost the state that predicts vaccination rates – it’s how much he won or lost it by. It’s crystal-clear that the more Republican a state votes, the more resistant it is to getting the shot:

The only Biden-won states that likely won’t reach the mark were among the very closest in the last election: Wisconsin and the aforementioned Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin. Biden emerged victorious by less than 3 points in all of them.

Indeed, it’s not just the binary (did Biden win or lose a state) that is increasingly predictive of vaccination rates, but how much Biden won the state by. On a scale of -1 to +1, the correlation is +0.85 between Biden’s 2020 margin in a state and the adult vaccination rate in a state.

This type of correlation is rarely seen when comparing a non-political and political stat. It gives you an idea of how much partisanship is driving vaccinations.

If you look at a map like this from the CDC, the pattern is striking. Vaccination rates map almost perfectly to voting histories. The Northeast and the West Coast are dark blue; the Midwest is in between; and the Deep South states have made the least progress of all.

And as time goes by, the gap is getting wider. The blue states are approaching full immunity, while the red states are falling further and further behind.

In states like Vermont, Massachusetts and New York, pandemic restrictions are being relaxed as new case numbers drop and vaccination rates crack 70%. Meanwhile, West Virginia, which was touted as an early success story, is falling so far behind that the state is now raffling off guns and trucks in a desperate bid to get more people vaccinated. Other conservative states like Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Wyoming have vaccinated barely a third of their population.

The big question is why Republicans are so resistant, even considering the vaccine was developed under the Trump administration. I wrote in March that Trump lied and downplayed COVID because he feared it would foil his reelection (which, indeed, it may have). His white evangelical base swallowed that propaganda so wholeheartedly, they still believe it even now that he’s out of office. Since they’ve long been primed to deny science, it was no great leap for them.

There’s also the problem of “owning the libs” syndrome: many Republicans have built an entire political philosophy around doing the opposite of whatever liberals want. If Democratic politicians are urging people to get the vaccine, they’re going to refuse out of sheer self-destructive spite.

And I can think of one more reason, intertwined with the other two: conservatives just want to deny Biden an accomplishment. They don’t want him to be able to say he was the president who ended the pandemic in America. Consistent with Republican strategy during the Obama years, they’re determined not to cooperate with anything he does – even if they’re the ones who stand to suffer from that decision, even if it means offering up their own bodies on a Molochian altar to the virus.

But whatever the reason, it may not be long before the cost of this strategy comes due. The more contagious and apparently more deadly Delta variant has arrived in America and is quickly outcompeting other strains to become the dominant form of the virus.

Those who’ve been vaccinated should rest easy, since the vaccines remain highly effective against Delta and other variants. Even those who can’t be vaccinated are much safer if they live somewhere herd immunity has been established. But if the virus finds clusters of unvaccinated people – and America’s polarized geography ensures that many who are of like mind live, work and worship in the same communities – explosive outbreaks can and will occur.

It’s worth wondering if the virus could actually shift the electoral makeup of the nation. The death rate isn’t that high to begin with, and it will be lower now that we have enough hospital capacity to treat the sick. On the other hand, we live in an extremely polarized country where elections are often decided by a handful of votes. The 2016 presidential election was decided by fewer than 80,000 voters out of 137 million – and over 600,000 Americans have died of COVID so far.

When there was less of a partisan divide in who got infected, this wouldn’t have been an issue, but now there’s a sharp one. If Republicans, by their own choices, give the virus free rein to rampage through red areas for the next few years – how many fewer of them will there be in 2022 and 2024 than there otherwise would have been? The question is morbid, but inescapable.

We shouldn’t root for anyone to get sick, if only because every new case gives the virus more chances to mutate in a way that escapes the vaccines. But the red-blue vaccine divide is real, regardless of what anyone thinks about it, and it’s possible that it will shape the next generation of American politics.

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