A statewide poll from late November shows 45% of Alaskans who identify as Republicans said they won’t get the COVID-19 vaccine. That’s compared with just 13% of Democrats.
National experts have warned that kind of hesitancy could undermine how effective the overall vaccination effort is.
“That surprises me. 45% seems real high,” said Mike Porcaro, a conservative talk radio host.
According to the data, the main reason for hesitancy is fear the vaccine development was rushed. The vaccine was approved for use in less than a year from the time its genome was sequenced.
“It’s not so much due to any inherent anti-vaccine type views. It’s more specifically around how quickly this was developed. And people wanted to take a wait and see approach,” said Matt Larkin, a Republican strategist whose firm conducted the survey.
He suspects the number of Republicans who would take it now has increased after seeing the success of the early doses.
But the dynamics of convincing Republicans to get vaccinated are complex.
One issue is Republicans skeptical of the vaccine don’t all think alike, said Porcaro. Some on the far right don’t trust the science or feel the vaccine is not necessary for them individually, he said. There’s also the more extreme view: conspiracy theorists who think the government is trying to plant a micro-computer chip in their bloodstream.
Strategists admit that all the scientific data in the world won’t convince those people.
It may take more than just scientific evidence to convince even moderate Republicans to get vaccinated. Polling shows that Republicans are also less likely to report getting flu vaccines, which weren’t developed as quickly and have been shown to be overwhelmingly safe and effective for decades.
Public opinion research in Anchorage suggests public messaging could tie getting a vaccine with reopening the economy to get conservatives on board. Larkin said Republicans might be convinced when they see other benefits of getting vaccinated, too.
“I’ve seen some reports that airlines may require somebody to have a vaccine to travel … those types of things will end up having, I think, a large impact,” said Larkin.
Health officials said that with vaccine supply still limited, there’s no need to specifically target Republicans in their messaging yet. At a press event last week, health department spokesperson Elizabeth Manning said an education team has ideas to convince more Alaskans to get the vaccine.
“We also work a lot with trusted messengers,” she said. “So, we try to figure out who is going to speak to that group the best.”
Porcaro, the radio host, thinks that’s a smart strategy. He got vaccinated on Monday, and is trying to convince listeners it’s safe. Gov. Dunleavy, the state’s top Republican said in mid-December he would get the vaccine, but stopped short of recommending it for all Alaskans.
“I’m going to do what I think is best for me. I would encourage others to do what they believe is best for them,” he said at the time.
Porcaro said that while that might sound a bit wishy-washy, it might be a coy tactic to convince skeptics to get the poke.
“Alaskans are a funny group, if you tell them, they got to do something, they don’t want to,” he said. “But if you said to them, ‘Hey, look, I’m doing this. And this is why,’ maybe they’ll go do it.”
He thinks getting Governor Dunleavy and a political rival together on camera getting a vaccine could go a long way in convincing skeptics.
“It’s like, these guys don’t agree on much, but look at this, look what they agree on,” he said.
Jeff Turner, a spokesperson wrote over email that the governor has not made any plans for such an event, at least not yet.