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How To Get Trump Voters Vaccinated When Half Say They Don't Plan To

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There's been a lot of focus on how communities of color feel about COVID-19 vaccines. New polling, including from NPR, shows conservatives are far more likely to say they do not plan to get vaccinated, and that is a problem. NPR's Tamara Keith reports on the push to persuade people who voted for President Trump to get the vaccine.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Jen from Iowa is skeptical of the COVID vaccines, even though she and her husband both recently had the virus, and he spent three weeks in an intensive care unit.

JEN: For us personally, I really am highly doubtful that we'll ever get vaccinated for this, even though it almost killed him.

KEITH: She was one of 19 participants in a focus group aimed at finding messages that could persuade people like her. It was led by longtime Republican pollster Frank Luntz and sponsored by the de Beaumont Foundation. They all joined by Zoom. And as Luntz said at the start, they all had two things in common.

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FRANK LUNTZ: You all voted for Donald Trump in 2020, and you all expressed at least some hesitation of getting the COVID vaccine. So you represent about 30 million people.

KEITH: In fact, the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll last week found 47% of Trump voters said they wouldn't choose to get vaccinated if they were offered a chance. By way of comparison, among Biden voters, only 10% said they would turn it down. Early on, Luntz asked participants to briefly share their thoughts on the vaccines.

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LUNTZ: Adam, what do you think of first?

ADAM: A miracle, albeit suspicious.

LUNTZ: Lauren (ph).

LAUREN: Unsure. Too many questions.

LUNTZ: Patrick (ph).

PATRICK: Rushed.

LUNTZ: Doug (ph) from California.

DOUG: Experimental.

KEITH: And on it went like that.

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LUNTZ: And Jen from Iowa.

JEN: Untrustworthy.

LUNTZ: Oh, my God.

KEITH: Distrust was a running theme - a lack of faith in institutions, the government, the media. Take Chad from Minnesota.

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CHAD: It's sad because I don't know who to trust. And that's not the America I grew up in.

KEITH: They talked about valuing freedom and said COVID has been used to manipulate and control people. As for the vaccine, David from Texas hit on a core concern among the group.

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DAVID: My fear of the vaccine is more than my fear of getting the illness.

KEITH: Luntz asked for a show of hands. Who agreed with David's statement?

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LUNTZ: That is almost, almost everybody - not everyone but almost everyone.

KEITH: Over the course of the two hours, Luntz brought in various doctors and politicians to try different arguments on the group. Dr. Tom Frieden, the former CDC director, said he wasn't there to convince them, just to share facts. He explained how vaccines, like the ones from Pfizer and Moderna, work.

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TOM FRIEDEN: I think of it this way - it works like an email sent to every one of your immune cells to show it a most wanted picture of what the virus looks like, along with instructions on how to kill that virus. And then, poof, like a disappearing message, it disappears. It's not in your body. It's gone.

KEITH: He admitted what he didn't know, where there is scientific uncertainty and presented facts like this.

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FRIEDEN: More than 95% of the doctors who have been offered this vaccine have gotten it as soon as they can.

KEITH: This particular point seemed to resonate. At one point, Luntz asked...

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LUNTZ: You got to choose - Donald Trump or your own doctor - who's going to have a greater influence on whether or not you get the vaccine?

KEITH: Nineteen out of 19 said their own doctor would be more influential. That surprised Luntz. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie talked about his experience with COVID.

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CHRIS CHRISTIE: You all know how I got it. I went into what was supposed to be the safest place in America, the White House.

KEITH: He emphasized the randomness of who gets really sick and who doesn't. He talked about his cousin and her husband, in their early 60s. She was a smoker, but he was active and physically fit.

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CHRISTIE: They both wound up being hospitalized, and two weeks ago, they both passed away.

KEITH: More overt political appeals fell flat. Luntz played the recently released public service announcement with all the living ex-presidents other than President Trump.

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BARACK OBAMA: So we urge you to get vaccinated when it's available to you.

GEORGE W BUSH: So roll up your sleeve and do your part.

KEITH: But the focus group wasn't into it.

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LUNTZ: Brian from Florida.

BRIAN: It was kind of, like, propaganda, honestly.

LUNTZ: Debbie (ph) from Georgia.

DEBBIE: It actually kind of annoyed me.

KEITH: But would having Trump be part of it help?

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Not a bit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Not a whole lot, no.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It wouldn't have helped.

KEITH: David from Texas put it this way.

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DAVID: A lot of us don't trust this because it's been politicized from the very beginning, and now they're trying to get a bunch of politicians to tell us what to do.

KEITH: At the end, Luntz asked the participants to reflect on what they had learned. Most had moved closer to getting the vaccine, including Jen from Iowa.

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JEN: Now I'm leaning a little more towards getting the vaccination. So I probably went from a 5 out of 10 to maybe a 7 out of 10.

KEITH: Adam from New York said he found Frieden and Christie compelling.

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ADAM: You know, we want to be informed. We don't want to be emoted to. We want to be educated, not indoctrinated.

KEITH: Luntz says he thinks there is a message that can reach Trump voters, but those making the pitch have to keep politics out of it.

LUNTZ: There is an ad that would do it, and it's an ad of the combination of the doctor who says, get the vaccine because I don't want you to go through what my patient did, and the patient saying, my God, I had no idea how tough this would be.

KEITH: The stakes couldn't be higher, says John Bridgeland from the COVID Collaborative, which is working on this issue with the Biden administration.

JOHN BRIDGELAND: We found - and the White House is very aware - that the largest correlation to vaccine hesitancy is actually being a conservative. We actually need to get a lot of that population engaged in getting a vaccine to reach herd immunity.

KEITH: He made that ad with the ex-presidents, and Bridgeland is proud of it. But he also says local voices - religious leaders and doctors - are clearly the best messengers.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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