The White House is eyeing conservatives for their next vaccine advocacy push amid concerns that many people may choose to forgo a shot, with plans for messengers who may be better equipped to speak directly to concerns from many people in red states.
But don’t expect President Joe Biden to put his stamp on it. And with the White House wary of squandering an opportunity to reach people while demand still outstrips supply, don’t expect the full rollout yet.
“The most important thing is to time this at a moment when we’re not getting people to come to take the shot, and then, there’s not a shot for them,” one White House official told the Washington Examiner.
Asked about the timing, this person said that it “would be in tune with when we’re in a place where you’re not hearing every one of the 50 states ask for more [vaccine] supply.”
The White House is working with outside groups, including one advised by several top officials from the Trump administration, including Seema Verma, who led the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services under the last administration, and the former head of President Donald Trump’s Domestic Policy Council, Joe Grogan.
“Americans and conservatives aren’t a monolithic group,” said John Bridgeland, a Republican and veteran of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, whose bipartisan COVID Collaborative is advising Biden’s team on how to overcome conservative hesitancy about the vaccine.
Bridgeland pointed to recent polling by his team showing that 41% of conservatives say they do not plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 34% of moderates and 14% of liberals.
“Another survey that wasn’t ours showed that 56% of Republicans say they won’t take the COVID vaccine or are undecided,” he added.
Bridgeland characterized a tiered effort for hesitant communities that aims to depoliticize the shot by connecting with people through faith- and community-based outreach, sports leagues, and other powerful institutions and intermediaries, as well as bringing together high-profile leaders across the political aisle.
The group is working with NASCAR, for instance, which reaches millions of people, including lots of conservatives, Bridgeland said.
“We, the country and individuals, don’t need the confusion of politics interjected into what is a public health inquiry,” he said, explaining the rationale behind a public service advertisement from the Ad Council featuring four former presidents, not including Trump.
Once they learned that Trump had gotten the shot, they reached out to his staff to suggest that he speak to his supporters, and they were “thrilled” when he went on Fox News to encourage others to get it too. The former president also told his supporters they should be inoculated during remarks late last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Public service advertisements are trickling out.
A White House effort featuring the stars of Deadliest Catch, a top cable show, began airing in February on the Discovery Channel. The Ad Council’s spot with former presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Obama, and Bush has also circulated, as has a brand new one featuring a montage of athletes across different sports leagues and organizations, NASCAR among them.
The ads do not solely target conservatives, whom recent surveys show are among the most hesitant to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The same was true of black and Hispanic Americans last year, but robust outreach by the White House means ethnic and racial minorities are now as likely as white Americans to get the jab.
Biden has said that he is aiming for widespread vaccine eligibility by May 1 and for as many people as possible to be vaccinated thereafter. Hesitancy throws a wrench in this.
“Most of them”
According to surveys, trust in the vaccine, health officials, and crucially, the government, stand in the way of widespread adoption. The more the jab appears politicized, the more averse people become.
The White House is aware of this, with press secretary Jen Psaki conceding to reporters that the Biden administration “may not be the most effective messenger to communicate with hardcore supporters of the former president.”
Whether Trump could and should do more is a matter of debate.
Press secretary Jen Psaki noted that “every other living former president, or most of them, if not all of them, has participated in public campaigns” and “did not need an engraved invitation to do so.” Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious disease official who has clashed with Trump, urged the former president to speak out in favor of the shots.
Biden has taken a different tack, stating that “the thing that has more impact than anything Trump would say to the MAGA folks is what the local doctor, what the local preachers, what the local people in the community would say.”
Surveys appear to support Biden’s take, but either way, Trump has no intention of participating in a public service announcement, a source close to the former president said.
The West Wing’s effort to engage NASCAR, within the ad and in outreach from drivers, wades squarely into Trumpworld.
Trump memorably took a lap around the Daytona 500 track in a limousine last year. A few months later, a car with a “Trump 2020” paint scheme made its debut at the Brickyard 400, sponsored by a political action committee hoping to reach unregistered voters, which they estimated at about one-fifth of NASCAR’s 75 million fans.
Still, for the campaign to succeed, the organizer may wish to find ways to distance the message from the White House, “as many NASCAR fans still hold strong antipathy toward the Biden presidency and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention],” the nation’s top public health agency, said Joshua Newman, a professor of sport, media, and cultural studies at Florida State University. “In other words, they should focus on the message instead of the messenger.”
Biden said Thursday he is targeting a goal of 200 million shots into arms during his first 100 days, doubling the goal he set when he came into office.
But without sufficient demand, the United States could be the place for a “perfect storm” of new coronavirus cases as social activity picks up, according to a report by the nonpartisan Penn Wharton Budget Model.
“If all eligible US residents are vaccinated in 2021, we project that the pandemic will effectively be over by the fall,” researchers Alex Arnon and John Ricco write. “Differences in the vaccine take-up rate lead to large differences in the state of the economy at the end of 2021.”
This is a concern for the administration, which hopes to reach herd immunity as quickly as possible and has been scouring data for how best to address this.
A focus group convened this month by pollster Frank Luntz brought together 19 Trump voters who said they would “maybe” or “probably not” get a coronavirus vaccine. These were not “anti-vaxxers” — they had received common vaccines for measles, polio, or hepatitis in the past, but 12 of them said they fear the vaccination more than the virus. Eleven of the 19 said they distrust the CDC.
To test different messages, Luntz brought in prominent Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Former CDC Director Tom Frieden also joined the group.
Politicians, Trump included, are ineffective messengers, they learned, with the panel revealing a pronounced mistrust for political leaders and the government.
“Conservatives want an unfiltered view of the science, the facts, the data, all the empirical evidence that’s out there on the virus to really come to their own conclusions,” said Daniel Siegel, who has overseen Luntz’s research on vaccine hesitation among conservatives.
Health providers and doctors were viewed as among the most credible sources, with some exceptions.
The group heaped criticism on Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top infectious disease expert who sparred with Trump while advising the White House’s coronavirus response, calling him a “liar,” a “flip-flopper,” and “opportunistic.”
A public service advertisement from the same group that made the new NASCAR and sports-focused ad featuring former presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Bush, and Obama was labeled “propaganda” by one participant. Another called the former presidents “bad actors.”
“It actually kind of annoys me,” one voter said.
While the White House has not reached out to Luntz directly, West Wing officials have circulated the findings.
Red-state vaccine advocates told the Washington Examiner that they would welcome the engagement.
In West Virginia, Teresa Tyson runs the Health Wagon, which provides care for the uninsured in rural Appalachia, where she has had access to the COVID-19 shots since only three weeks ago.
Tyson said that while some patients are initially skeptical, this is overcome by talking through the issues. Only one member of her staff refused the vaccine, stating that she had antibodies from catching the virus earlier in the year.
Tyson said that a major impediment was the supply of vaccines needed: Her mobile clinic didn’t receive doses until three weeks ago, prior to which vaccine-eligible patients would have had to travel hours to get the shot.
She said she reached out by email to Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, who leads the Biden administration’s COVID-19 health equity task force, for assistance scoring the vaccine for her vulnerable patient population but never received a response.
The perception among some is that red states and conservatives have been left behind in Biden’s “war-footing” to beat the virus.
“I would love to see more of an investment in the Appalachian region,” Tyson said, adding that for winning the persuasion game, “nothing tops taking it out into the community.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill said there had not been any meaningful outreach to their offices.
A senior Republican aide said the White House has made no attempt to reach conservatives in Congress beyond rote “blanket phone calls” to lawmakers, including doctors who are dealing directly with the hesitancy issue in their home states.
“There needs to be a big push to put the kinds of doctors who are actually seeing patients and administering the vaccine to people in front of this group and not, you know, Dr. Fauci, or people with political baggage,” the aide said.