Republicans make up California’s largest group of vaccine skeptics, but hesitancy is declining

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Cars line up in this drive-thru vaccination site during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Inglewood, California, U.S., March 15, 2021. Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters.

The vaccine rollout is ramping up, but that doesn’t mean everyone is willing to roll up their sleeves.

A few weeks ago the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) conducted a survey to find out where vaccine skepticism is most prevalent. And when analyst Rachel Lawler and her colleagues sliced and diced the results, the biggest group of vaccine resisters they found in California were Republicans. Just over a third said they probably or definitely won’t get vaxxed.

“It’s still about four in 10 Reps saying they are unlikely to be vaccinated, compared to 10% of Democrats and 19% of Independents,” Lawler says.

To be clear, while Republicans may make up the largest group of vaccine-hesitant Californians, a majority of them are willing to get vaccinated. Roughly one-third of those polled in the PPIC survey said that they’re unlikely, but that means two-thirds are good to go — and many already have. For instance, Orange County attorney Alex Eisner recently got vaxxed, and says the majority of his fellow Republicans are as well.

“Mainstream Republicans and I like to call myself one of those and am fairly in tune with that group of people in Orange County, they’re getting the vaccine, they’re on board with the vaccine,” Eisner says.

Eisner also says he hasn’t noticed any correlation between being vaccine hesitant and being Republican. He says he doesn’t know any “Trump holdouts” who think that the former president wouldn’t have advised them to get vaccinated.

Making the individual decision to get vaccinated is one thing, but expecting others to do the same is where some Republicans draw the line — like Huntington Beach City Council member Mike Posey, who was also recently vaccinated.

“I think that if there was a mandate to get the vaccine, I probably wouldn’t get it just because of that,” Posey says. “I got the vaccine through free will and free choice. I didn’t do it because I was expectant that there would be a vaccine mandate or a vaccine passport or any of those kinds of Draconian rules because I’m not necessarily one to follow lockstep with those kinds of rules, especially being Republican.”

To be clear, there aren’t any vaccine mandates on the horizon right now, nor any “vaccine passports” — essentially proof of vaccination used to gain entry somewhere. Also, the White House has said it will not be imposing any mandates, though some colleges are saying they will require vaccination to enroll in person.

Even without an actual vaccine mandate, the idea of a mandate upset many Republicans, including some who already got the shot. 

And then, there are those who are not so willing to face the needle. Erik Peterson is a self-identified conservative Republican, and he sits alongside Posey on the Huntington Beach City Council. He is not against anyone getting this vaccine — his wife has — but he doesn’t feel that he needs it.

“I’m not afraid of it, I just don’t want to get it. I don’t like putting extra things in my body I don’t think I need,” Peterson says. “I think it’s my choice. I don’t get the flu shot every year. I don’t get anything that I don’t need to get. I take my vitamins and I try to eat healthy. That’s it.”

Peterson’s take on the pandemic is making one Democrat in particular very uneasy —- Dan Kalmick, a vaccinated Huntington Beach City Council member who occupies the seat next to Peterson. He is frustrated that the virus and vaccine are being made into political issues instead of public health issues, and fears that sitting next to people on the council who “think they know better than science,” in his words, could put his family at risk.

“I have a 2 year old, and I sit between two folks on Council that won’t wear masks. So, if they’re asymptomatic and not getting vaccinated, I’ve got that 5% chance I could get contagious and give it to my daughter,” Kalmick says.

There are Republicans whose hesitancy comes from a massive distrust in the government, like Bryan Makowka. She attended several pro-Trump rallies during the pandemic and an anti-vax protest at Dodger Stadium in January. Makowka has never been a fan of vaccines, and is especially ignoring calls to get one for COVID-19, citing an intuitive feeling that something about this vaccine is going “awry.” She also says she has trust in her immune system to keep her healthy.

Nonetheless, both Republicans and data analysts agree that skepticism is on the decline.

“There are various amounts of skepticism certainly about the vaccine, the speed with which it was created, and the rigor with which the FDA approval process was undergone, but it didn’t seem to stop any of the [Republicans] that I know from going ahead and getting it,” says OC attorney Alex Eisner.

“Those that say they will definitely get the vaccine are increasing, and we’re seeing that increasing among pretty much every group, even Republicans,” says PPIC analyst Rachel Lawler. “If the goal is herd immunity, that is positive, even if it's small incremental steps.

As of April 15, one in four Californians have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and millions more are waiting in line.