‘Everybody I Know Is Pissed Off’

New polling data paint a more complicated picture about the next phase of the pandemic.

A photo of the legs of a person standing on a patch of grass next to a placard on the ground that reads "Vaccine Choice"
Matthew Hatcher / Bloomberg / Getty

The vaccinated, across party lines, have kind of had it with the unvaccinated, an array of new polls suggests.

While most state and national GOP leaders are focused on defending the rights of unvaccinated Americans, new polling shows that the large majority of vaccinated adults—including a substantial portion of Republicans—support tougher measures against those who have refused COVID-19 shots.

These new results, shared exclusively with The Atlantic by several pollsters, reveal that significant majorities of people who have been vaccinated support vaccine mandates for health workers, government employees, college students, and airline travelers—even, in some surveys, for all Americans or all private-sector workers. Most of the vaccinated respondents also say that entry to entertainment and sporting arenas should require proof of vaccination, and half say the same about restaurants.

All of this suggests that as the Delta variant’s “pandemic of the unvaccinated” disrupts the return to “normal” life promised by the vaccines, a backlash may be intensifying among those who have received the shots against those who have not. And that could leave Republican leaders who have unstintingly stressed the rights of the unvaccinated—including Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy—in an exposed position.

As a political calculus, it’s “a risky one,” says Matthew Baum, a public-policy professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and a co-founder of a multi-university study of public opinion on the outbreak. “Over time, this general sense may grow of ‘Why are we who are vaccinated enduring this in order to coddle this liberty fantasy of the unvaccinated?’ And I think that is going to get stronger as the inconvenience grows, and as the wind goes out of the getting-back-to-normal sails, which is clearly happening. Everybody I know is pissed off.”

The principal dynamic raising tension between the roughly 70 percent of American adults who have received at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine and the roughly 30 percent who have not is the current caseload surge. The Delta variant has again pushed the national COVID-19 caseload past 120,000 new infections daily, more than 10 times its level in mid-June.

Under that pressure, the divide between Republican and Democratic officials over how to respond to the pandemic—which raged throughout Donald Trump’s presidency but somewhat receded as the focus shifted to vaccine distribution under President Joe Biden—has reopened. Though more Republicans in recent weeks have promoted the vaccine, the party’s leaders at both the state and national levels have consistently emphasized people’s right to refuse it, while also opposing mask mandates to combat the immediate threat in the red states where case numbers are rising fastest.

Multiple states with Republican governors have banned school districts or local governments from imposing mask mandates. (Together, those states enroll about one-fourth of all primary- and secondary-public-school students.) About 20 Republican-controlled states have barred private businesses from requiring proof of vaccination. Seven Republican-controlled states have barred employers from requiring their workers to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine, and other red states are considering similar proposals.

In advancing these ideas, GOP leaders have insisted that the “choice” to reject the shot must be defended. “In Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected, and no business or government entity will be able to deny you services based on your decision,” DeSantis declared when signing his ban on vaccine passports in May. When New York City imposed such a requirement for admission to restaurants or other indoor venues, McCarthy sharply condemned the move as “un-American. Period.” He added: “Republicans will oppose any attempt to expand such a disastrous policy.” Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, as is often the case, has offered the most incendiary attacks, comparing restrictions on unvaccinated individuals to “segregation” (after earlier comparing mask requirements to the Nazi holocaust).

Democrats, more fitfully, are moving in the opposite direction, toward more mandates. Biden has made vaccination a necessity for federal workers, and a military requirement is expected close behind. Several blue states and cities have imposed vaccine mandates on government employees; California has mandated the shots for teachers and health-care workers, and many Democratic-leaning jurisdictions are requiring masks for public schools (in several cases in defiance of GOP governors’ prohibitions) and some indoor activities. Yesterday, the Los Angeles City Council moved toward adopting a version of New York’s vaccine-passport requirement. California Governor Gavin Newsom took another dramatic step yesterday by mandating that teachers either obtain a vaccine or accept weekly testing.

These moves by Biden and blue jurisdictions amount to the beginning of a shift in response to the recent upsurge, away from imposing more obligations on the vaccinated (such as mask mandates or capacity limits) and toward demanding more of the unvaccinated (through vaccine mandates or proof requirements).

Nick Gourevitch, a Democratic pollster who has closely studied attitudes about the pandemic, says public opinion has not moved decisively in favor of more pressure on unvaccinated people. Polls do consistently find that big majorities back mask mandates in most circumstances. But regarding segments of the population for whom officials have been discussing possible vaccine mandates—health-care workers, the military, students and staff at K–12 schools and universities, and interstate travelers—surveys have produced more divergent results; most find the country split almost exactly in half. “These are not slam-dunk numbers,” for more vaccine mandates, Gourevitch told me.

But these same polls also show a widening split in attitudes between respondents who have been vaccinated and those who have not. And this suggests that the overall balance could tip further toward mandates as more Americans receive the vaccines—and as they grow more frustrated that the “pandemic of the unvaccinated” is limiting their choices and multiplying their risks.

To better understand these dynamics, I asked several pollsters to break down results from their recent coronavirus surveys into four groups: Republicans and Democrats who have and have not received the shots. About 85 percent of Democrats and just over half of Republicans have been vaccinated, according to a recent survey by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, which is conducting monthly polls about experiences and attitudes toward the COVID-19 vaccines.

In some key respects, party still outweighed vaccination status in the polls I examined: In the Kaiser polling, for instance, vaccinated Republicans were no more likely than unvaccinated Republicans (and much less likely than Democrats, whether or not they had been vaccinated) to say that they routinely wear a mask in various public settings.

But on almost all key questions, a majority, usually a significant majority, of vaccinated Americans in these surveys wanted tougher requirements. Vaccinated Democrats remain much more likely than vaccinated Republicans to support such mandates, but a substantial portion of the latter consistently echoes those views.

Evidence of frustration among the vaccinated begins with a recent Axios/Ipsos national poll that asked who was to blame for the recent upsurge in COVID-19 cases. Compared with the Democrats who had received the vaccine, the vaccinated Republicans were much less likely to blame former President Trump or conservative media, and much more likely to point a finger at President Biden and mainstream media, according to previously unpublished figures provided to me by Axios and Ipsos.

But big majorities of the vaccinated in both parties assigned responsibility to the unvaccinated; almost two in three vaccinated Republicans joined nearly nine in 10 vaccinated Democrats in blaming them for the case rise. By contrast, less than one in 14 of the Republicans who hadn’t received the shot blamed the unvaccinated. (In this survey, like most of those I examined, the group of unvaccinated Democrats was too small to reliably analyze.)

Vaccinated Republicans also depart significantly from their unvaccinated counterparts in their assessment of the risks now facing the country. In the July Kaiser poll, about three in five vaccinated Republicans and more than four in five vaccinated Democrats expressed concern that the Delta variant “will lead to a worsening of the pandemic”; only about one in three unvaccinated Republicans agreed.

Likewise, more than eight in 10 vaccinated Republicans joined more than nine in 10 vaccinated Democrats in agreeing that “becoming infected with coronavirus” was a greater risk to their health than “getting the COVID-19 vaccine.” It may be hard to imagine how anyone might disagree, but six in 10 of the unvaccinated Republicans said that receiving the vaccine was a bigger risk than contracting the disease. (Kaiser’s poll did have enough unvaccinated Democrats to measure, and they came out in between: Only about one-third said that receiving the shot was the greatest risk, while about half picked contracting the disease.) Vaccinated Republicans consistently express much more support than unvaccinated Republicans for an aggressive response—though they remain less supportive than vaccinated Democrats.

The COVID States Project’s national polling has found the broadest support for mandates: In its latest survey, 63 percent of vaccinated Republicans, as well as 95 percent of vaccinated Democrats and 65 percent of unvaccinated Democrats, supported government action “requiring everyone” to obtain a vaccination. Unvaccinated Republicans stood isolated in their opposition; just 14 percent supported such a sweeping mandate.

When Kaiser recently asked whether “the federal government should recommend that employers” require their workers to get vaccinated, four-fifths of vaccinated Democrats and nearly half of vaccinated Republicans agreed that it should. But nearly nine in 10 unvaccinated Republicans disagreed (as did about six in 10 unvaccinated Democrats).

Quinnipiac University found similar patterns when it recently tested attitudes toward a broad range of vaccine and mask requirements. Among vaccinated Democrats, at least 85 percent backed vaccine mandates for government workers, university students, health-care workers, and all private-sector employees; well over 80 percent backed proof-of-vaccination requirements for flying or entering large arenas; and 90 percent or more backed mask requirements for public-school students and staff, as well as for participants in indoor activities in high-risk areas. (Seventy percent of vaccinated Democrats also backed proof-of-vaccination requirements for restaurants.)

In a mirror image, about 90 percent or more of unvaccinated Republicans opposed all of those ideas, with the highest percentages rejecting a private-sector vaccine mandate or proof-of-vaccination requirements for different activities. Vaccinated Republicans, though, were considerably more receptive to these ideas; somewhere between one-third and one-half supported almost all of the possible requirements. They expressed the most support for requiring vaccines for health-care workers (53 percent) and proof of vaccination to fly (44 percent), and the least support for mandating masks to enter restaurants (23 percent).

Biden so far has focused more on encouraging, rather than requiring, vaccinations. Although he’s imposed a mandate on federal employees, he’s rejected calls for requiring proof of vaccination for interstate travel, including on planes. And although he belatedly intensified his public criticism of Republican governors blocking mask mandates, he hasn’t followed those words with any policies to pressure them to change direction.

But medical experts say Biden may soon have to face a choice of imposing more mandates or accepting persistently high caseloads and hospitalization rates. Many experts originally believed that the nation probably needed to vaccinate about 70 percent of its population to achieve herd immunity. But the Delta variant is so much more contagious than the original strain that experts such as Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, and Ezekiel Emanuel, the vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, say the nation now will more likely need to vaccinate 85 or 90 percent to reach that goal.

On the basis of the COVID States Project’s polling, Baum says, he believes that the share of American adults who will voluntarily take a vaccine will peak at about 75 percent, well below the new required level. Emanuel agrees. “We are in a circumstance of where we are going to need carrots and sticks,” he told me. “We are not going to get there by carrots alone.”

Emanuel recently organized a letter from leading medical organizations urging all health-care employers to require that their employees be vaccinated. But he said that such ad hoc efforts among private-sector employers are unlikely to produce enough progress. “I think we are probably going to have to think more systematically,” he said. Like many medical experts, he wants Biden to explore more options for encouraging vaccinations, including further federal mandates and using federal funds to promote mandates by other institutions.

Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican consultant, says that although the deteriorating situation will likely provoke “greater exasperation” among the vaccinated toward the unvaccinated, any push for more mandates, such as for interstate travel, would ignite a big conservative backlash. “I think it’s politically dangerous,” he told me. “It’s really hard to justify.”

But Gourevitch believes that the support for tougher measures among a significant share of vaccinated Republicans complicates the equation. He doesn’t think that the disagreement is powerful enough to cause many of those Republicans to break from their party entirely and support Biden or Democrats, but he does think that their attitudes could make it difficult for GOP leaders to generate the kind of ferocious conservative uprising against COVID-19 mandates that they have ignited on other issues over the years, such as undocumented immigration, defunding the police, and passage of the Affordable Care Act.

“The strategy that has worked for them … is when they have 90 percent agreement in their group,” Gourevitch said. “There’s something different about this than any of their culture-war or [racial]-identity fights, because a huge percentage of their own party at the very least doesn’t agree [on], or is not energized by, the position of protecting the unvaccinated.”

Biden, who has generally muted issues that might spark culture-war confrontations, has clearly been reluctant to test the public’s tolerance for more coercive measures to pressure unvaccinated individuals to receive a vaccine. But if the virus continues to find a safe harbor primarily in Republican-leaning states with low vaccination rates and lax public-health protections, he may eventually have no choice but to enter that fight.