No, the Flu Shot Hasn’t Become Partisan
Reading disparate polling numbers critically.
A CNN report headlined “Flu shots uptake is now partisan. It didn’t use to be.” seems plausible. That it carries Harry Enten’s byline made it more interesting.
It starts strong:
Uptake of the Covid-19 vaccine has, unfortunately, become partisan like so much else in our society. Almost every Democratic adult (90% to 95%) has gotten a shot, while a little less than two-thirds of Republican adults have.
That partisanship appears to have transferred to at least one other important vaccination. An examination of flu shot data suggests that which party people belong to is highly correlated with whether they have or will get a flu shot this season — something that was not predictive of flu shot uptake the last few years.
Take a look at two recent polls that have asked about whether or not people have gotten the flu shot: Axios/Ipsos and Kaiser Family Foundation. By assessing two polls instead of one, we know what we’re seeing is a real phenomenon and not statistical noise.
According to the Ipsos data, 68% of Democrats said they have gotten a flu shot or are very likely to get one. Just 44% of Republicans said the same. This 24-point gap is very similar to the 30-point gap for Covid-19 vaccines.
The Kaiser poll shows basically the same thing. A clear majority (65%) of Democrats indicated that they had received or will definitely receive the flu shot. Just 40% of Republicans indicated they would. The 25-point partisan gap in this data is a near carbon copy of the 24-point gap in the Ipsos poll.
Now compare this data to what we saw in past years — specifically, in the years before the Covid-19 pandemic took its hold.An AP-NORC poll in February 2020 asked adults whether they had received a flu shot in the last 12 months. In this poll, 58% of Democrats said they had compared to 54% of Republicans. This 4-point gap is well within any margin of error.
A Princeton Survey Research Associates International from the second half of 2016 queried adults about whether they had gotten a flu shot in the past year. This poll looked nearly identical to the 2020 poll with 55% of Democrats and 53% of Republicans saying they had gotten a flu shot in the last 12 months.In other words, there was no partisan gap.
So, yes, this looks interesting. Headline confirmed for those who read past it.
But for those who continued to read to the eighth paragraph, there’s a plot twist:
If you look at the data, the partisan gap in the flu vaccine data for this year is appearing because of two phenomena.
The first is that Democrats appear to be more likely to have received or will receive the shot than in past years. The second is that Republicans appear to be less likely to have done so.
It seems plausible that the push to get the Covid-19 vaccine has led to more Democrats getting the flu shot, while it has had the opposite effect on Republicans.
Indeed, Americans who have gotten a Covid-19 vaccine are far more likely to have received a flu shot. Just 17% of those who have not gotten a Covid-19 vaccine say they have or will likely get a flu shot in the Ipsos poll. This jumps to 64% among those who have received a Covid-19 vaccine.
Speaking for myself, I’m an unreliable getter of the flu shot. When my kids were younger, and therefore more at risk from the flu, I got it every year. Since then, I’ve gotten it haphazardly, either when it was being offered at my workplace or I was getting another shot, anyway. Last week, when I scheduled my Covid booster, there was an option to also get the flu shot. I did so.
I strongly suspect that this explains the newfound “partisan” divide. The flu shot hasn’t been politicized. But Democrats, because of Covid shots and/or boosters, are more likely to be getting a shot and adding a chaser of the flu vaccine.
Absent an independent reason to think the flu shot has been politicized—say, a campaign on Fox News or by Republican politicians or influencers to discredit the vaccine—it makes sense to treat things that are problably knock-on effects as knock-on effects.
If you combine the percentage of Americans who say they have gotten or will definitely (or will very likely get in the Ipsos poll wording), about half the country will get a flu vaccine this year. This does not look to be significantly different than in past years. That is, the rise in Democrats getting the flu vaccine this year looks like it will be canceled out by fewer Republicans getting it.
Of course, we’re examining only the flu shot in one season. We don’t know whether there will be a continued partisan split on who gets the flu shot in future years. We also don’t know whether other life saving vaccinations will see a similar partisan split going forward.
No. No we don’t. I strongly suspect, though, that this was a one-off. Former President Trump made Covid denialism a feature of American politics for selfish and idiosyncratic reasons. It’s highly unlikely that we’ll see those circumstances repeating themselves.