Focus group shows how to convince Trump voters to get the vaccine — and which messages fail miserably

Focus group shows how to convince Trump voters to get the vaccine — and which messages fail miserably
Supporters of President Donald Trump await his arrival at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Ky., Aug. 21, 2019. Trump was in town to speak at an AMVETS convention and attend a fundraiser for Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s re-election campaign. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Horton)

With Covid-19 vaccine distribution ramping up in the United States, many project that we'll soon get to a point where our supply outstrips demand. Though right now, we have more people that want the vaccine than we have vaccines and appointments to give out, we may find ourselves with more vaccines ready to go than people willing to take them. That's because, in part, a significant portion of the population distrusts vaccines or is hesitant to take them.

Republicans and former Trump voters are among those most likely to resist calls to trust the vaccines, surveys have consistently found, despite the fact that they were developed under his administration and he has previously touted them as an accomplishment. So those worried about distributing the vaccines as widely as possible throughout the population have zeroed in on the question of how to persuade this group to sign up.

In a new piece on Monday for the Washington Post, reporter Dan Diamond recounted a recent online focus group of vaccine-skeptical Trump supporters conducted by GOP consultant Frank Luntz. Luntz tested a range of messages on the group and gauged their reactions.

By far the most effective at seeming to convince the Trump supporters to consider taking the vaccine, Luntz found, was direct facts about the vaccine provided by an expert:

Dr. Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, quickly ran through a list of facts cited in favor of the vaccine for the group: "One: If you get infected with the virus, it will go all over your body, and stay there for at least a week, and be much more likely to cause you long-term problems than the vaccine. Two: If you get the vaccine, it will prime your immune system, but then that vaccine is gone. It will not be with you anymore. Three: More than 95 percent of the doctors who have been offered this vaccine have gotten it as soon as they can. Four: The more we vaccinate, the faster we can get back to growing our economy and getting jobs. And five: If people get vaccinated, we're going to save at least 100,000 lives of Americans who would otherwise be killed by Covid."

After hearing those facts, a significant portion of the group raised their hands to say they were impactful on their decision about the vaccine.

But another message landed with a thud. When the group was shown the widely circulated clips of former presidents — but not Trump — talking about the importance of the vaccine, they were not impressed:

"It feels kind of like propaganda, honestly," said one person identified as Ryan from Florida.

But perhaps most surprisingly, the group suggested that they wouldn't care much if Trump himself appeared in an ad advocating the vaccine. The participants said "that their spouse or doctor would be more influential on their decision than hearing from the former president," Diamond reported

There is a significant caveat on all of this: Using focus groups is not exactly a precise science. There's no guarantee the group is representative of the larger population you're trying to understand, and how people claim to be reacting may not be entirely accurate. It's possible, for instance, that the people in the group really would be more likely to get the vaccine if Trump were publicly endorsing it, but they prefer to present themselves as the kind of people who are more persuaded by experts and facts. But when dealing with complex questions such as these, it may be that focus groups provide useful insights into how public health officials should address the soon-to-be pressing problem.

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