WASHINGTON — Celinda Lake remembers watching a focus group of Republican voters in August when a mother of three children started to cry.
The woman, a lifelong Republican, was furious: One of her sons wasn’t yet eligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine but needed to attend school in-person. And she blamed people who refused the vaccine for jeopardizing his health.
“‘Because of these people, he has to stay masked up, which isn’t good for him,’” Lake, a longtime Democratic pollster, recounted the woman saying. “‘I’ll never forgive them.’”
It’s in that frustration that Democrats now see a political opportunity.
Lake and other Democratic strategists say that in a litany of focus groups since the late summer, vaccinated Republican voters have expressed rising levels of anger about unvaccinated Americans, faulting them in part for the country’s then-rising number of infections and deaths from COVID-19.
That has led Democrats to examine whether they have a chance to make inroads with voters frustrated with continued vaccine skepticism — particularly the affluent, suburban voters already drifting away from the GOP — as Republicans largely view the vaccine as a matter of personal freedom.
It’s a sentiment that has only become more politically important, Democrats say, amid the ongoing fight over vaccine mandates embraced by President Joe Biden and opposed by many Republican governors, which has led to high-profile clashes this week alone in Texas and Florida.
“In the end, the vaccinated Republicans may end up being a major target in a lot of these races in 2022,” Lake said.
Republicans dispute that the anger at unvaccinated Americans is a threat to their party, citing Biden’s falling approval ratings as evidence that the public primarily blames him for the lack of progress against the pandemic.
Even political operatives who see an opening for Democrats with unvaccinated Republicans temper their predictions, saying appeals to them will only go so far to fix a myriad of issues plaguing the White House.
But at a time when some Republicans who backed Biden during the 2020 election are increasingly uneasy with him, it’s a dynamic they say could offer an important bulwark against these voters swinging back to the GOP in 2022 or even 2024.
“As this drags on, there’s definitely an opportunity for wedge issues within the Republican Party between those who are vaccinated and those who are not,” said Sarah Longwell, who conducts regular voter focus groups and is the executive director of Defending Democracy Together, which opposes former President Donald Trump.
“Especially, again, with these college-educated suburban voters who were happy to take the vaccine and don’t understand why others aren’t, because they want to go back to normal,” Longwell added.
VACCINE MANDATE DEBATE
Refusal to receive a vaccine has, relative to other segments of the population, run high among conservative-leaning Americans. But many in the GOP have still received the shot. A Gallup poll released in September found 56% of Republicans were at least partially vaccinated.
Biden’s vaccine mandates receive lower support among Republicans, according to polls, but still appeals to a segment of the GOP electorate. The president announced in August he would introduce a vaccine requirement for all federal workers and a new federal rule that would require businesses with more than a 100 employees to enforce their own vaccine mandate or administer weekly tests of the unvaccinated.
A separate Gallup poll from September found that 19% of Republicans backed the mandate for federal government workers, while 17% of them supported it for large private companies. The measures also received majority support from Americans overall.
“You can’t sit through a focus group, no matter what the issue is, without people bringing up the pandemic and the vaccine,” said Jesse Ferguson, a leading Democratic strategist. “It’s not the issue that lives in the policy papers in Washington, but it actually lives in what people talk about and what people are concerned about and what people are angry about.”
Biden’s team at the White House sensed the need for a strategy shift back in August, as the delta variant of the coronavirus raged across the country and Americans grew increasingly pessimistic that the pandemic was behind them.
That month, the administration proposed making all adults eligible for vaccine booster shots eight months after their last dose — a plan that was later upended by skeptical federal regulators — and rolled out a variety of vaccine mandates.
In speeches and other public appearances, Biden began to regularly place blame for the continued surge of coronavirus cases on unvaccinated Americans and Republican politicians he said were standing in the way of safety measures.
“We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin,” Biden said in a speech in September, addressing unvaccinated Americans. “And your refusal has cost all of us.”
Joe Grogan, the former director of the Domestic Policy Council under Trump and a member of the original White House coronavirus task force, is one of those Republicans frustrated with the vaccine skeptics in his own party.
But Grogan said the current White House is more interested in criticizing vaccine opponents than persuading them to get the shot, arguing that any effort to redirect responsibility is political spin.
“I’d love to see the polling on how he flips this, but unfortunately the big loser is public health,” Grogan said.
“There are plenty of people who are frustrated and disappointed that there’s a lot of misinformation,” he added. “But the administration has done a lot to foment that, and frankly to cultivate resentments on the part of people who are prone to be resentful.”
ANGER AT THE UNVACCINATED
Democrats say part of the reason they think the strategy could be successful is the sheer amount of anger among vaccinated Republicans. Lake, the pollster, said in her focus groups, vaccinated Republicans were far angrier than Democrats at unvaccinated Americans, even arguing for more punitive measures to be taken against them.
“Republicans would say if you go to the emergency room, you don’t get treated, you get to the back of the line,” Lake said. “And when we would push them and say that would mean people dying on the doors of hospital emergency rooms. And they’d say, well, they made that choice.”
Lake, who worked for Biden’s presidential campaign last year, said she thought vaccinated Republicans were angrier because they are more likely to encounter unvaccinated people in their daily lives than vaccinated Democrats.
She added that vaccinated Republicans are also likely to come across more pushback on the safety and efficacy of vaccines from friends and acquaintances, angering them further.
Political strategists say the ultimate aim of targeting these voters would be to transfer their anger at unvaccinated people to Republican politicians who oppose vaccine mandates. The current fight between Biden and GOP governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas could help accomplish that, but for now Democrats haven’t yet decided if or how they will press the issue in the midterm elections.
Some operatives also concede they don’t know if it’s a potent enough issue for these Republicans, even those who voted for Biden last year, amid a political climate that is otherwise pushing them back toward the Republicans.
“These voters do not like the spending,” Longwell said. “They do respond to some of the cultural issues that they don’t like, people who talk about defunding the police, and they’re not wild about the conversation around critical race theory.”
But, she added, the vaccine is one issue that could potentially give them a second thought about rejoining the GOP.
“When you listen to them, they don’t sound like Democrats,” Longwell said. “However, they are vaccinated. They believe in mandates, they wear masks, they want to be safe and want their kids to be safe in school. And they think Trump and many of these Republicans’ approach to the pandemic is wrong, and it has very real consequences.”