Be honest that scientists don’t have all the answers. Tout the number of people who got the vaccines in trials. And don’t show pro-vaccine ads with politicians — not even ones with Donald Trump.
That’s what a focus group of vaccine-hesitant Trump voters insisted to politicians and pollsters this weekend, as public health leaders rush to win over the tens of millions of Republicans who say they don’t plan to get a coronavirus shot. If those voters follow through, it would imperil efforts to achieve the high levels of immunity needed to stop the virus’s spread in the United States, experts fear.
“These people represent 30 million Americans. And without these people, you’re not getting herd immunity,” said Frank Luntz, the longtime GOP pollster who convened Saturday’s focus group over Zoom. The group followed what Luntz characterized as a remarkable arc: By the end of the two-hour-plus session, all 19 participants (one dropped out early) said they were more likely to get vaccinated, and Luntz said he had begun nationwide polling to see which messages resonated with a broader population.
“I think by Wednesday next week, we’ll have tested messages that folks can use to help Republicans become more vaccine-confident,” said Brian Castrucci, CEO of the Bethesda, Md.-based de Beaumont Foundation, the public health organization that funded the ongoing effort.
The members of Luntz’s focus group were identified only by their first name and state, although many participants shared biographical details across the session — which featured GOP politicians and Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, attempting to calm their fears about the vaccines.
Participants were adamant: They all believed the coronavirus threat was real, with many having contracted it themselves or aware of critically ill friends and family, and they didn’t want to be condemned as “anti-vaxxers” who opposed all vaccines. Instead, they blamed their hesitation on factors like the unknown long-term effects of new vaccines, even though scientists have stressed their confidence in the products. They also accused politicians and government scientists of repeatedly misleading them this past year — often echoing Trump’s charges that Democrats used the virus as an election-year weapon and overhyped its dangers. Several said that recent political appeals to get the shot were only hardening their opposition.
“We want to be educated, not indoctrinated,” said a man identified as Adam from New York, who praised the vaccines as a “miracle, albeit suspicious.”
A woman identified as Sue from Iowa said she feared political “manipulation” of the vaccines, even though she had been a pharmacist for Merck, one of the drug companies helping to produce a vaccine. “I know their vaccines are good products, I trust them,” Sue added. “What I don’t trust is the government telling me what I need to do when they haven’t led us down the right road.”
The focus group’s concerns echoed pollsters’ findings about Trump voters’ significant vaccine hesitancy. A CBS News/YouGov poll released Sunday found that 33% of Republicans said they would not get a shot, and another 20% said they were undecided. In contrast, just 10% of Democrats said they were opposed to getting vaccinated, and another 19% were undecided.
During the Zoom session, Republican politicians including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Rep. Brad Wenstrup of Ohio, chair of the GOP Doctors Caucus, took turns trying to persuade the hesitant voters to get vaccinated. But the lawmakers’ pitches largely fell flat, and in some cases, the politically tinged rhetoric seemed to inspire more doubts. For instance, McCarthy said he understood the Trump voters’ hesitation because pharmaceutical companies waited until after Trump lost the election to announce their promising vaccine results — a comment that sparked participants to share their own resentments.
“It was political stunts like that that leave doubt in our minds,” said a man identified as David from Texas.
But the focus group applauded Frieden — an appointee of President Barack Obama, a detail that went unmentioned — particularly after he rattled off “five facts” about the virus and the vaccines, such as the overwhelming share of doctors who have chosen to get vaccinated. Participants praised the former CDC chief for his apolitical bent and repeatedly cited arguments they said had changed their minds, like the tens of thousands of people who participated in coronavirus vaccine trials last year.
“The single fact that swayed me the most was Dr. Frieden’s comment … the long-term impacts of COVID could be, [or] are worse than the impacts of the vaccine,” said a man identified as Peter from Missouri. Peter added that he went from “80%” opposed to the shot to “probably 75%” in favor after the session.
“His first points were, it’s been 20 years of research [to develop the vaccine]. It’s not just out of the blue,” added a man called Chad from Minnesota, who also praised Frieden for acknowledging that the long-term risks of the vaccines aren’t yet known. “He’s just honest with us and telling us, nothing is 100 percent here, people.”
Many other proposed or actual messengers fell flat: The group panned a public service announcement released last week, for instance, featuring former presidents Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. One attendee called the ad “propaganda,” and another said the former presidents were “bad actors.”
“It actually kind of annoys me,” said a voter named Debbie from Georgia.
The group also condemned Anthony Fauci — the government infectious-disease specialist relentlessly attacked by Trump and conservative media for the past year — as a “liar,” “flip-flopper” and “opportunistic.”
Fauci, whom multiple participants also blamed for Trump’s missteps on the virus, told “Fox News Sunday” that Trump should make his own public service announcement. But the focus group of Trump voters didn’t warm to that idea, with attendees universally saying that their spouse or doctor would be more influential on their decision than hearing from the former president.
Luntz, who told The Post last week that he didn’t “need a focus group to tell me that nothing would have a greater impact than a Donald Trump PSA,” said he was surprised that Trump’s participation was rejected by people he characterized as die-hard supporters. “Those people are beginning to move on,” he theorized. A Fox News pro-vaccine PSA also drew shrugs from the group.
One Republican politician did make a persuasive pitch: former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who relayed his own story of contracting the coronavirus while advising Trump in the White House — and developing a case so serious that it landed him in the intensive care unit for a week. Christie also revealed that two of his family members died from the virus, focusing on the “randomness” of how the coronavirus could seriously affect even healthy people, including Trump’s 30-something adviser, Hope Hicks.
“We really shouldn’t be all marching in lockstep like lemmings to go and do what the government tells us to do,” said the former two-term governor, positioning himself as a political outsider. “They’ve screwed up too many times for us to do that. But I really do believe the facts that I’ve learned, and the experiences I’ve had, should make at least everybody … think hard” about getting a vaccination.
Luntz said that he was despondent that politics and public health had become so intermingled in the response to the pandemic.
“It makes me really mad at both administrations because people are going to die,” the longtime pollster said, blaming Trump for downplaying the risk of the virus — and Biden for downplaying the Trump administration’s work on developing a vaccine.
“You credit Trump for the effort he put in. And then move on,” Luntz added. “What harm can be done by saying something nice? Even though we all know Trump wouldn’t do it himself.”
Public health experts who watched the session said it influenced them to further develop pro-vaccine messages that are hyperlocal, hyper-personal and apolitical.
“I’ve been thinking the messaging was going to be very different for communities of color, for Democrats, for Republicans,” said Natalie Davis, co-founder of United States of Care, a public health advocacy group working on vaccine outreach with organizations like the de Beaumont Foundation and Kaiser Family Foundation. “But it feels like it comes down to the basics that are shared across populations. People want full, accurate information so they can decide if this is the right thing for them and their loved ones.”
Reached after the session, Frieden said that he had been prepared for the Trump voters to be suspicious of his guidance but that the often-emotional reactions still caught him off-guard, including that the fear of the vaccines was initially greater than the fear of getting very sick from the virus.
“I didn’t realize the depth of feeling that the vaccine has been weaponized and politicized,” Frieden said. “That was quite striking to me.”
The former CDC chief said he’s already planning to emphasize the messages that people found persuasive.
“The vaccines were approved quickly in part because red tape was cut, not corners,” he said. “And almost all the doctors who are offered the vaccine get it.”