Why GOP politicians talk like anti-vaxers, but aren’t…

This post is a response to the thread: “Chris Christie and Rand Paul’s pandering to antivaccinationists: Is the Republican Party becoming the antivaccine party?” on Respectful Insolence, dated 2/3/205.

Regarding recent comments on vaccination as a matter of ‘individual choice’ and freedom by Christie and Pau, respectively, RI host Orac wrote:
I don’t think that Gov. Christie is antivaccine (although I’m not so sure about Rand Paul). What I do know is that the conflation of “choice” with vaccination has led to a powerful incentive for politicians, particularly Republican politicians, to pander to antivaccine views.

In the comments under the OP, Mike #36 objected to the idea that ‘vaccine freedom’ was the same thing as ‘anti-vax’.

    There are really 2 different issues with 4 different policy positions. Pro or anti-vaccine; Pro or anti- government mandated vaccines. I consider myself pro-vaccine. I have all my vaccinations up to date, I always get the quaternary flu vaccine, my kids are up to date on their vaccines and we even enrolled our children in a phase III trial for a new vaccine. I also consider myself anti-government mandated vaccination. I can understand government vaccine mandates for places like public schools where kids will be crammed together as long as public schooling is not compulsory. I think that Orac is lumping these two different issues together under 1 topic. I don’t think that is fair or accurate.

I don’t know if the blinking box is lumping. The point may just be that Christie and Paul’s positions are ideologically consistent with anti-vaxers from Jay Gordon to Age of Autism to Jack Wolfson, and their statements appear as comfort and support to the loonies and opportunists at a time of distress, helping thm keep going. I’m sure that’s true.

But Mike has a point: anti-vaxers may be Libertarians, but that doesn’t mean Libertarians are anti-vaxers. They share a certain philosophy, but have different conclusions about the medical science. Sbm advocates may even find the Libertarian politics more disturbing than the anti-vax politics. At least the anti-vaxers want their PBEs because they truly believe vaccines hurt their children. The Libertarians don’t think that. They mostly know vaccines are safe and prevent the spread of dangerous infectious diseases that pose a serious public health menace that could kill hundreds of people a year. But they want to let the anti-vaxers have their PBEs anyway.

With vaccines taking the national political stage today, I want to look at the politics of Christie’s and Paul’s in the context of the broader pre-campaign for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, and consider why they may have said these things, and what effects their remarks may have on their political ambitions.

I would say there are six different constituencies listening to Christie and Paul, listed below in my estimate of ascending order of size:

A) ‘Anti-vaxers’ who I’ll define as activists in the Jenny McCarthy vein who just KNOW the MMR causes autism, other vaccines have their own evils, and will never, ever listen to reason and change their minds.

B) ‘Non-vaxers’ or ‘fence-sitters’. These are parents who have either just not vaxed their kids yet, delayed the vax schedule, or are wondering about vaxing for kids they don’t yet have. I’ll define the dominant trait of this group as passivity. They don’t post on blogs, or make other public statements. For the most part they don’t seek PBEs. They just haven’t taken the kids in for the recommended immunizations because they’re “not sure”. There are a lot more of these non-vaxers than there are genuine anti-vaxers, and it’s the non-vaxers that are undermining the herd immunity. A study by Lieu et.al in Pediatrics reported the ‘under-vaccinated’ rate in Marin County at 18.1% (including kids who got no shots at all), but the ‘vaccine refusal’ rate in Marin is just 6.6%.

C) ‘Conservatrolls’ These are the ultra-partisan disciples of Karl Rove and Andrew Breitbart, who will opportunistically take any position that can be used to whip up the base and bash Democrats, whether they believe it or not, or whether their candidates were on the other side of the issue last year. This group is well represented in the audience for Fox and Limbaugh, though the fan base of such media figures no doubt has a healthy number of true believers of the groups below as well.

D) ‘Rights-Firsters’ Mike’s in this group. These folks mostly all vaccinated their own kids on schedule, or don’t have target age kids to worry about. Medical concerns of any kind — either autism or VPDs — are very low on their agenda, if they even make the list of issue concerns at all. As fiscal conservatives, they’re mostly resolutely anti-big-government and hate Obamacare with a passion. They are, for the most part, sincere in these beliefs.

E) ‘Christian Right’ Huckabee and Santorum voters. Unless sincere religious exemptions are threatened, they could care less.

F) ‘Mainliners’ Old-school Republicans: Romney, H.W. fans. Probably concerned about VPD outbreaks, and favor sensible vax policy, but would rather not talk about it.

Now, a) how any of these groups react to what Paul and Christie are saying is one thing, b) why the pols are saying what they say is another, and c) how that will affect their campaigns is a third other thing. Trying to gauge b) or c) for Christie or Paul must be done in the context of the workings of the GOP nomination process. The sorting and winnowing begins with the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in January, followed by New York, the Carolinas, Minnesota, Utah, and Nevada in the first part of February. A number of early hopefuls will be knocked out by then, and after a short breather, the survivors will head into a big cluster with Texas, Florida, Michigan, Virginia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Vermont all decided by March 1. After that, the game will most likely be over, or down to two at most. With the exception of NY, MA, VT each GOP result will be dominated by voters from the hard-core conservative base.

Both Christie and Paul already have very-well-funded shadow campaign organizations doing all sorts of polling and focus-groups to help the candidates tailor their messages to the early states. Here’s the non-medical exemption rates, vax rates, and my guess of the dominant and secondary (if there is one) primary/caucus bloc in each of the those states:
Iowa ……………………1.2…….90.5….E: D
New Hampshire…….2.3…….ND….D
New York……………..0.6…….96.6….F: D
Minnesota…………….1.6…….96.3….E: D
Utah…………………….3.7…….96.3….D: E
South Carolina………ND…….90.9….E: D
North Carolina……….0.7…….97.3….D: E
Michigan……………….5.3…….94.4….E: D
Texas……………………1.2…….97.5….D: E
Tennessee…………….1.1…….94.5….E: F

By these numbers, the only states with even a possibly significant anti-vax or non-vax voting bloc are MI and SC, both of which are likely to be decided by other issues by a long shot.

So, if we assume that Christie’s and Paul’s staffs are competent, they’ve had enough time since Disneyland broke to study the scene and counsel the candidates on message, the first conclusion I draw is that the vax statements have nothing to do with vax per se, and are dog whistles to the Rights-Firsters. This is Paul’s base, of course. But we might imagine Chris Christie is aiming to get enough cred with this group of voters to stay afloat during the early delegate contests.

BUT: there’s a better explanation than candidates jockeying for the early delegate count. And that would be that they’re jockeying for the early money.

Eric Lund #57 notes the Wall St. money doesn’t like Rand Paul, and eight years ago that would have indeed doomed his chances as a serious candidate. But we’re in the post-Citizens-United world now, and a single eccentric multi-billionare like Sheldon Adelson can keep a candidate floating into Super Tuesday. So my best guess is that what we’re seeing this week from the GOP hopefuls are auditions for Charles and David Koch — who are Rights-Firsters more than anything, and have a posse of like-minded lesser billionaire buddies associated with their Heartland Institute that will follow their lead on donations. They’ll be spreading their bets around through New Hampshire at least, not going all-in on one horse. But various contenders are angling for a bigger piece of that pie, while others are positioning themselves to get bigger pay-days from other big donors who don’t run with the Kochs.

The conservatroll pundits seem to be split on the ‘vax is a personal right tactic’, and we might take their messages to be addressed only partly to the candidtes, and even more to the big donors: don’t back the wrong horse! Breitbart.Com seems worried about what Brian Deer suggested in #1: that even having uttering the word “vaccine” could let the Dems tar a candidate with the anti-vax, disease-spreading brush. The Breitbarters are probably imagining Hilary’s attack ads spreading Jack Wolfson all over the U.S. as the 2016 version of Willie Horton. (HRC’s 2008-vintage autism dog-whistle is now deeply buried, and she’s Captain Vaccination! Tweeting last night, “”The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids. #GrandmothersKnowBest”.) Limbaugh is probably calculating that pushing the Rights-Firster button will be long forgotten by next November.

Today, in addition to the note on Scott Walker in the NYT Orac mentioned, CBS News noted GOP hopefuls Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio made pro-vax statements, though (of course) they said nothing about Rand Paul. Rubio may have actually been speaking from the heart as he noted his grandfather had been disabled by polio as a child, and his position was ‘medical exemptions only’! Cruz went the Conservatroll and ChristianRight route by standing by religious exemptions, and using the occasion to bash ‘the liberal media’.

    Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told reporters Tuesday that the vaccination issue “is largely silliness stirred up by the media. Nobody reasonably thinks Chris Christie is opposed to vaccinating kids other than a bunch of reporters who want to write headlines.”

CBS hinted this may pose problems for Cruz with the RightsFirsters, and Paul was already on top of that with this charming take:

    He reminded listeners on Ingraham’s show that another potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, had for a time issued an executive order mandating one vaccine for girls. “I don’t know if you remember when Gov. Perry made it mandatory to get, for a sexually transmitted disease, to have everybody have to take it,” Paul said. “While I think it’s a good idea to take the vaccine, I think that’s a personal decision for individuals to take and when they take it.” While Perry was running for president in 2012, he came under heavy criticism for the executive order, and later called it “a mistake.” Perry has not said anything recently on the topic.

In conclusion, imho this is all very early jockeying for position – mainly for money – and where any of these pols are over the next few months on vax and VPDs will probably depend entirely on how far the measles outbreak spreads and how long it stays in the news. (Do any of the doctors in the house know anything about projections? Does the CDC think they’ll be able to cut this off at some point? Don’t know? Not telling?) If the measles cases continue to increase, even Rand Paul isn’t going to touch vaccines with a 10-foot pole.

Eric may be right about Paul not wanting to risk his Senate Seat in 2016, and he’s young enough he might be positioning himself for 2020. But he’s obviously got a monster ego, so who knows? MOB wrote: “Paul is (hopefully) not considered a serious presidential candidate except by a small vocal group.” Well, Chris Matthews thinks Paul will win the nomination and have a good shot in the general. Being an Old (61), I recall an election year from my youth where a GOP candidate we all thought to be a looney-tunes extremist was getting the level of support Paul has now. We were pulling for this guy to get the nomination, as we were sure 3 or 4 guys in the field would be much stronger candidates in the general. The longer he stayed alive in the primaries, the more we rubbed our hands in glee. Just wait, we said, this guy has such nutty ideas the press will just tear him to shreds, and if he gets the nomination, he’ll be lucky to carry a single state outside the South. The guys name, of course, was Ronald Reagan.

Chris Christie? Fuhgedaboutit

  1. Interrobang said:

    Hey, Sadmar — very glad you have a blog! I’m probably your only fan at RI, but I have a comms background, so i get what you’re saying.


    • sadmar said:

      Thanks! You know I do it for the adulation! 😉 From tiny acorns… come sprouts sprayed with Roundup! 🙂


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