More Polling Data On The Politics of Vaccine Resistance

By Chris Mooney | April 27, 2011 8:03 am

Okay, so, I owe Brendan Nyhan big time on this one.

In a debate last week that pulled in Kevin Drum, David Frum, Andrew Sullivan, Josh Rosenau, and Mike the Mad Biologist, we’ve been discussing whether vaccine denial is really a left wing phenomenon or not. One problem has been that the polling data on who actually resists vaccines is pretty scarce.

However, there are at least two polling results out there in the universe of public opinion data that have not been discussed yet, so far as I can tell. Neither is perfect for getting at the question of who has fallen for the vaccine-autism scare, but both are relevant. Let’s take them in sequence.

In late 2009, USA Today/Gallup asked a question about Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vax views:

Did Jenny McCarthy’s statements (she believes her son developed autism after getting a common childhood vaccine) make you more likely to question the safety of vaccines for children, or did her statements not make you more likely to question the safety of childhood vaccines?

Survey by USA Today. Methodology: Conducted by Gallup Organization, November 20 – November 22, 2009 and based on 1,017 telephone interviews. Sample: national adult. Interviews were conducted with respondents on landline telephones for respondents with a landline telephone, and cellular phones for respondents who are cell phone only. [USGALLUP.200921.Q21]

What Brendan Nyhan did for me was obtain the polling data from Roper, and then helped me break the results down by the political leanings of the respondents.

One major complicating factor here is that not everyone surveyed was aware of McCarthy’s claims. That makes the question less than ideal. Still, we can break the results down for liberals, conservatives, and moderates–and what we’re trying to see is if there is any strong correlation between political views and those who said they were “more likely” to question vaccine safety after having heard McCarthy’s (wrongheaded) views.

So here are the results: Liberals (41% not aware, 38 % aware but not more likely, 21 % aware and more likely); Moderates (48 % not aware, 28 % aware but not more likely, 24 % aware and more likely); Conservatives (49 % not aware, 28 % aware but not more likely, 23 % aware and more likely).

These results basically suggest that there’s little or no political divide in terms of who falls for Jenny McCarthy’s misinformation. Notably, liberals were somewhat more aware of her claims and yet, nevertheless, were least likely to listen to them. But not by a huge margin or anything.

I recently stumbled on a second polling result that is also relevant, although hardly perfect for our purposes–also from 2009. In a Pew poll that year that sought to differentiate between the views of scientists and average Americans of a variety of issues, people were asked whether childhood vaccines ought to be required, or if instead it should be left up to parental choice. 69 % of Americans thought they should be required (vs 82 % of scientists), while 28 % would leave it to parental choice (vs 17 % of scientists).

What’s interesting here is that Pew also provided a political breakdown of the results, and there was simply no difference between Democrats and Republicans. 71 % of members of both parties said childhood vaccinations should be required, while 26 % of Republicans and 27 % of Democrats said parents should decide. (Independents were slightly worse: 67 % said vaccinations should be required, while 30 % favored parental choice.)

Bottom line: There’s no evidence here to suggest that vaccine denial (and specifically, believing that childhood vaccines cause autism) is a distinctly left wing or liberal phenomenon. However, I will reiterate that we don’t really have good surveys at this point that are clearly designed to get at this question.


Comments (26)

  1. Gaythia

    Why are you so stuck here, in antivaxx battleland, unable to move on, unwilling to address health issues that are truly significant? Real public health officials are now addressing infectious diseases and immunization issues in new, more effective ways. Getting the adults that surround infants immunized for example, and working to address parents immunization concerns.

    Meanwhile, if you wanted to address the politics of health policy there are many opportunities. Lack of access, is significant, as I have attempted to point out before.

    Additionally, there are other forces afoot; for example, from today’s headlines, Supreme Court questions that indicate that perhaps pharmaceutical companies have a first amendment right to purchase prescription drug information from pharmacies. The purpose seems to be to enable the pharmaceutical companies to target doctors who prescribe generic drugs over their branded ones. (“Bad” doctors, saving money for patients, cutting corporate corners?) This is playing out in Vermont, where it is easy to imagine that information from a small town doctor treating a patient with a unique disease could violate the patients privacy. What happened to the privacy of the doctor patient relationship? Does the Constitution really say that all of our personal data is up for sale? Why is it corporations, not people, who seem to need protection under our Bill of Rights?


  2. TTT

    Thank you very much for following up like this.

    I must say I am very surprised by the breakdown of McCarthy’s followers. I knew antivaxism was bipartisan, but I did always assume that her particular subset would be very liberal.

  3. Pat

    If you go to Pubmed (library of the National Institute of Health) and type in “autism vaccines” you get about 530 hits. After throwing out the reviews repeating the same talking points about Wakefield you’re left with about 250 original data articles expressing real concerns about vaccine safety. What can we do to get these retracted Sheril? What can we do to censure this stuff Chris?

  4. Gaythia

    @2 What is it that strikes you about Jenny McCarthy’s thought process as liberal? As opposed to say, the thought process of a PhD Molecular Biologist? In my opinion, another problem with these threads is that they lump people together under such broad labels in such silly boxes.

    Chris, I am an admirer of George Lakoff, and thought you did a great interview with him. Why are you so invested in this sideshow? What would George say here?

  5. The best poll of whether there is an ideological bent to vaccine denial would be to ask parents:

    Do you vaccinate your children? Why? Are you conservative/liberal/moderate?

    The polls you’ve cited here are interesting, and suggest that vaccine denial is low and not ideologically based at all, but neither are ideal tests of the question.

    In the first poll, people are told “X says her child developed autism because he was vaccinated”. Barring real pushback, that statement is going to make any parent more hesitant. Parents vaccinate their children to prevent disease and will stop if they think the risk is that the vaccines are dangerous.

    In the second poll, people are asked “Who do you trust, parents or the government?” Many people will call for parental choice even if they would choose to vaccinate anyway.

  6. rbelyell

    it is so unfortunate that we can onky debate imoortant issues in this country at the extremes. either we swallow whole hog the present infant vaccine regimine or we are neanderthals. i propose neither point of view is acceptable.

    i grew up in the 1960s when less than a half dozen vaccines were required for infant protection spread out over the first few years of life. outside of a rubella outbreak, i recall no advrese effects on our infant populace, neither in mortality, serious disease contraction, nor mental disfunction.

    today there are well over 2 dozem vaccines required, sometimes given 6-8 at one time, spread out over 18 months. and, factually, ther IS a documentable and unhealthy increase in childhood autism. many of that generation are suspicious, and rightfully so, of government or other studies that fly in the face of common. sense. it used to be we didnt expose oue infants to being outside the house for prolonged periods in the first few months of infancy, but now its ok to expose them to a dozen or so diseases through vaccination during this time? cmon now.

    while i am specifically not saying vaccines are unneccesary, i do question why we have increased their number by 400% and i do question why they cannot be spread out over a more reasonable time period, when the infant body is better prepared to deal with them, and i very much DO question why it is considered neanderthal to question whether this combination of factors may indeed be responsible for the increase of childhood autism.

  7. Perry

    I’m a flaming liberal from Madison Wisconsin. I’ve seen the devastating effects of global warming first hand. I’ve fought to keep any mention of creationism out of our classrooms. When it comes to injecting newborns and infants with large doses of short-chain alkyl mercury compounds though, this is where I disagree with you folks.

  8. Chris Mooney

    @7 well there’s a left wing one! where did you get “large doses” from? plus, thimerosal has been removed.

  9. Gaythia

    @Chris Mooney @8, You’ve interviewed George Lakoff. You’ve discussed (and presumably read) Mercier & Sperber. You’ve written about motivated reasoning.

    And yet, here you are, stuck in a rut!


    You are the author of “The Republican War on Science”. I think you can do better.

  10. Chris Mooney

    @9 gaythia, if you don’t like the posts on vaccines, you really don’t have to read and comment on them. I am interested in this, even if you are not.

  11. Gaythia

    I am interested in health.

    I am interested in science communications strategies and such things as motivated reasoning.

    This is, quite frequently, a good intersection.

    Just as with the communication of global climate change, I believe that all of this jousting back and forth with antivaxxers is interfering with reaching the public at large with actual science messages. It seems to me that you are seeing in others, on other topics, you aren’t recognizing in yourself here. I actually do have faith in your underlying intelligence and ability to figure these sorts of things out. And to serve as a very effective spokesperson. I just think you aren’t recognizing a bit of your own blind spot here.

    There is plenty of real science data out there. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or a science journalist to use a search engine. For example, if one were to search for “vaccination rates by state” one could find a wealth of information. I will omit a slew of links here, but they are easy to find. There is a study for Michigan by county produced by the Michigan Care Improvement Registry. There is a research paper on reducing geographic, racial and ethnic disparities in New York State. One could find out that Marin County, California has a personal belief exemption rate for kindergarten vaccinations, which is, at 7% higher than other Bay area counties. (This doesn’t necessarily mean that these kids are not vaccinated, but does indicate a lack of cooperation on the part of their parents in involving the government in this decision). In contrast, San Diego county has apparently increased vaccination rates from 60% in 1991 to 86% by 2009. Central California counties are also improving their vaccination rates. Many counties are targeting vulnerable adults. (another Chris and I discussed this issue on an earlier therad). The state of California Department of Health has lengthy tables for such things as Pertussis rates which could be statistically analyzed to see how they fit various demographic and political theories.

    It is not that I don’t like the posts on vaccines, it is that I think, after a number of years of the same old same old it is time to move on, time to actually incorporate all of that stuff you should be assimilating in your interviews and discussions, time to figure out better approaches that really does inform the public about the science of vaccines and thus does improve public health.

    And, I believe that these same improvements in approach and messaging, will work for other issues, such as global climate change, and thus have importance.

  12. Perry

    Chris at #8. I analyzed a multi-dose vaccine vial for mercury.

  13. Russell

    Vaccines contain small doses of extremely active chemicals designed to produce an over-excited immune response. This is needed because most of our immune system resides in our gut, and a direct injection of just small amounts of virus/bacterial protein markers would not cause a significant production of antibodies on its own. These chemical adjuvants are the real issue as to vaccine safety. Science uses double blind placebo trials to justify safety in pharmaceutical medicines, why are they not performed for vaccines? Vaccines are tested in trials against other “safe” vaccines. While only a small percentage of people show drastic reactions to vaccinations, the idea about giving infants 36 vaccinations by age five seems ridiculous, especially when you consider how a new vaccine like Gardasil is pushed, yet may not even confer immunity. Children’s brain development is extremely sensitive, and should be protected, not exposed to aggressive chemicals. I have not even brought up the way in which a virus is attenuated by exposing it to monkey kidney cells and other tissue cultures to render it “harmless”. Vaccines are not 100% percent effective, and vaccination ignores the real way to strengthen the immune system – through contact with microbes and supporting healthy gut flora. Many people choose not to vaccinate for reasons other than a suspected autism link. By the way, if vaccines are so safe, why the need for a protection from litigation and hold harmless clause for the corporations producing them?

  14. Perry

    I agree with eveything you said Russel except for the term “small dose”. Here’s why;

    0.5 parts per billion (ppb) mercury = Kills human neuroblastoma cells (Parran et al., Toxicol Sci 2005; 86: 132-140).

    2 ppb mercury = U.S. EPA maximum limit for drinking water.

    20 ppb mercury = Neurite membrane structure destroyed (Leong et al., Neuroreport 2001; 12: 733-37).

    200 ppb mercury = level in liquid the EPA classifies as hazardous waste based on toxicity characteristics.

    25,000 ppb mercury = Concentration of mercury in multi-dose, Hepatitis B vaccine vials, administered at birth from 1991-2001 in the U.S.

    50,000 ppb mercury = Concentration of mercury in multi-dose DTaP and Haemophilus B vaccine vials, administered 8 times in the 1990’s to children at 2, 4, 6, 12 and 18 months of age and currently “preservative” level mercury in multi-dose flu, meningococcal and tetanus vaccines. This can be confirmed by simply analyzing the multi-dose vials.

    In addition ethylmercury, the type used in vaccines, is more toxic than methylmercury. Why? Primate studies show that ethylmercury leaves behind twice as much divalent mercury in the brain than methylmercury. Injecting this into the muscle provides rapid access to the bloodstream and just makes this situation much worse.

  15. Gaythia,

    I would ask for your money back from Chris and Sheril.

    I like helping.

  16. TTT

    What is it that strikes you about Jenny McCarthy’s thought process as liberal? As opposed to say, the thought process of a PhD Molecular Biologist?

    Her mantra of “green our vaccines!”, as though “green” meant anything specific–let alone medically useful–is a strong clue. And I wouldn’t soon expect a PhD molecular biologist to endorse McCarthy’s idea that her “indigo children” are reincarnated or the next stage in evolution or whatever her babble translates into.

  17. Russell

    @15 – well, relatively small due to the small volume of the shot, 50 ppm (50 parts per million = 50000ppb) of a 1mL shot works out to only .5 mg. A small amount of actual chemical and comparable to the EPA limits of mercury in two weeks worth of drinking water. (2ppb x 1000mL/day x 14 days/2week)

    Mercury has been removed from many vaccines, but other adjuvants and preservatives have taken its place, including aluminum – associated with Alzheimer’s and impaired brain function. These are not substances that should be directly injected into babies veins, especially since many of the vaccines are for low risk diseases. Pharmaceutical companies profit from more vaccinations, and many lobby for inclusion on the required/recommended list.

  18. Gaythia

    @17 I usually think of “liberal” as meaning open minded. This would require actually having a mind, and being capable of using it intelligently. What I was trying to get at here was that lumping Americans into two simple divisions; right(conservative)/left(liberal) is not an adequate delineation to explain the politics and policy of public health, infectious disease control and vaccinations.

    @16 For the book? Actually the book I refer to above, the Republican War on Science, along with several by George Lakoff are among those books that I have lent out and lent out until finally they didn’t come back again. I thought they had something important to say and I wanted as many people as possible to read them.

  19. JC

    Chris, I’ve admired your work in the past.

    That said, what are your views on the safety of “giving infants 36 vaccinations by age five” (if true)?

    Do you know if in fact the necessary scientific precautions have been followed in the testing, effectiveness, necessity, protocol, etc. in the current state of childhood vaccination in the US?

    Vaccines – yes. But what about the methodology?

  20. Are you kidding me? Surveys are the leading cause of Alzheimer’s!!

  21. I find this question pretty out of touch with heartland America, where the dominant spectrum really looks to me like a conformist / paranoid spectrum not a left / right spectrum. That is, people who distrust authority most tend to have an odd cluster of left and right opinions, and those are the ones likely to be the most strongly suspicious of vaccines. The paranoid side tend to be antitax with a T, and the republicans shamelessly play to that, but they will not self-identify as left or right and they will not share the other positions of the religious conservatives. The best known point of reference is Kinky Friedman, who runs as a democrat but embodies exactly the same attitude as does Ron Paul.

    The coastal urban culture seems to me hopelessly confused about this but I would have thought your N.O. roots might have innoculated you against the confusion. Alas, you didn’t seem to take that vaccine yourself.

  22. Chris,
    I have to agree on the point that the science of vaccines needs more exploration, not the anti-vax movement. My wife and I have had to have several unfortunate discussions with our pediatricians about which vaccines we want and which we don’t and on what schedule. We’ve managed, for instance, to largely avoid Hep B for either of our kids since the wee ones are not IV drug users nor do the have promiscuous sex. Yet the state of Maryland will probably fine our day care if they find out, and neither kid will be allowed to enroll in kindergarten by the state. Now there’s your story, and as a journalist, I’d hope you jump on it.

    and Michale Tobias (@22), us Louisiana folks often don’t see the the confusion you mention, because our little sub-culture is really not like anything in the rest of the U.S. None of you, so far as I know, had bumper stickers for your 1991 Governor’s elections that said “Vote for the Crook – It’s Important!”

  23. Ed

    I think that it’s great that you are exploring the anti-vax movement. What I hope you will also get to study one day, the pro-vax movement. I’d love to hear a breakdown of the “bright spots” and the demographics of the people who are for vaccines instead of trying to understand all of the people who don’t get it. What are concepts or sticking points that make champions for the vaccine community? I’m not necessarily talking about the giants like Paul Offit or Allison Singer, but what about doctors who write letters to their county health department to petition the parents to vaccinate? ( what about the parents who have decided to vaccinate who have children who are autistic and defend vaccines with just as much passion as those with autistic children and condemn vaccines? Or just parents who want to vaccinate (


  24. Marion Delgado

    It’s also noticeable that antivax is a minority opinion. But all the anti-vaxxers I know don’t know it is. They’d claim, too, that “parents” are the ones that count and that it’s people without kids pushing the pro-vax average.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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