National Journal

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When it comes to the public's views on policy, what matters more: popular opinion or behavior?

In a recent Pew opinion survey, 30 percent of Americans say parents should be able to choose whether or not to immunize their children. Thirty percent is no small portion of the population, as potential presidential candidates Chris Christie and Rand Paul must be aware. On Monday, both politicians voiced support for vaccination choice, reigniting debate over whether vaccines should be nationally mandated.

But maybe that debate is over. Here's the more meaningful statistic: In its most recent survey of vaccination coverage in kindergarten, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that across 49 states (CDC acknowledges holes in the data) and the District of Columbia, the median vaccination rate for measles, mumps, and rubella is 94.7 percent. What's more, the CDC finds that vaccination exemptions tend to cluster in small communities. 

Anti-vaccination is rare in America, but it has an outsize impact. All it takes are a few unvaccinated people to spread a disease as highly contagious as the measles. At The Upshot, political scientist Brendan Nyhan worries that media attention is giving the impression that the anti-vaccination movement is larger than it is. "The extensive coverage we've seen of the Disneyland outbreak could also confuse parents by exaggerating the size of the anti-vaccination movement and the prevalence of unvaccinated children," he writes.

This isn't a debate with equivalent sides. Christie and Paul are appeasing a very small group of Americans who don't vaccinate. And though there are many people in favor of parental choice, most do choose to vaccinate.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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