WASHINGTON -- Despite a week of political controversy over childhood vaccinations, the American public remains largely undivided on the issue.
While a recent study suggests that coverage of controversy over vaccines can actually drive down support for them, a new HuffPost/YouGov poll finds that most Americans see childhood vaccinations as safe and necessary. And although there are some signs of conservative skepticism, the issue remains far from becoming a partisan football in public opinion.
The idea that vaccination is an issue of freedom hasn't taken much hold. Seventy percent of Americans say the issue of whether children should be vaccinated is a matter of public health, while just 22 percent describe it as a personal choice. Just 21 percent know anyone who's decided not to vaccinate their own children. (In another sign of sound priorities, a majority also says the measles pose a bigger threat to Americans than Ebola did last year.)
Most people don't think the issue of vaccinations should even be up for debate. Fifty-nine percent say the science supporting the safety of childhood vaccinations is indisputable, as President Barack Obama argued in a TV interview earlier this month.
Americans under 45 are 15 points less likely than older Americans to say that vaccination is a matter of public health, and 14 points less likely to say that the science was indisputable. A new Pew Research survey, which found that 83 percent of Americans consider vaccines safe for healthy children, showed a similar breakdown, with older adults and those who had graduated from college most likely to believe vaccines were safe.
Political views, though, don't seem to play much of a role. Democrats are 30 points more likely than Republicans to have at least a fair amount of trust in the government's vaccination policies. But Democrats and Republicans are about equally likely -- at 61 and 62 percent, respectively -- to say the science itself on vaccines is indisputable. More than 70 percent in both parties consider vaccination a public health issue.
"I’m encouraged by the general bipartisan agreement that vaccines are a matter of public health and have a strong scientific basis," said Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College who had earlier voiced concerns that the debate could end up politicizing vaccination.
There is at least one ideological group that's inclined to be more skeptical of vaccines: Americans who consider themselves politically independent but conservative. While that group was still more likely than not to say vaccination was a public health issue, about 40 percent called it an issue of choice. That creates a modest ideological divide. Self-described conservatives are 11 points more likely than liberals to say vaccinations are a matter of personal choice, though a majority still rejects that argument.
Chart created using Datawrapper
Liberals and conservatives do disagree on where exactly the anti-vaccine movement is centered, with both groups more likely to ascribe anti-vaccine politics to the other side. By a 15-point margin, liberals think conservatives are more anti-vaccine; conservatives say the same thing about liberals by the same margin.
Chart created using Datawrapper
Although vaccination remains relatively non-partisan among the public, it has muddled the lines among politicians.
The lawmakers who most prominently took fire last week for casting vaccination as, to some degree, an issue of choice, were Republicans -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). But following the initial firestorm over their comments, other GOP candidates, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), offered unequivocal support for vaccination programs. "There is a lot of fear mongering out there on this," Jindal said in a statement. "I think it is irresponsible for leaders to undermine the public's confidence in vaccinations that have been tested and proven to protect public health."
Within the day, Christie's spokesman issued a clarification insisting that "the Governor believes vaccines are an important health protection, and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated." Paul also backtracked, blaming the media for characterizing him as anti-vaccine, and invited a New York Times reporter to watch him get a Hepatitis A booster shot.
At the state level the issue has often, but not always, taken on a partisan tinge.
Democrats have backed bills to tighten vaccine regulations in states including California, Minnesota and Maine.
A Montana Republican, meanwhile, added an amendment to a vaccination bill that would add the state to the ranks allowing parents to opt out based on "personal beliefs," to the chagrin of the bill's Democratic sponsor. Colorado Republicans also introduced a bill to give parents wider rein on issues including vaccinations.
But the divide isn't absolute. A New York Democrat also introduced a "philosophical" exemption clause. In Vermont, a bipartisan group of state senators is working to end the state's own philosophical exemption, which Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) would like to keep. In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) championed a rule change to educate parents seeking to exempt their children from vaccinations.
"So far, it's not shaping up to be a partisan issue, and I hope it never does," said
California state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a pediatrician who co-authored a bill to end California's religious and personal-belief exemptions. He said it was too soon to tell who would back the legislation, but hoped both parties would sign on. "There are many things we can have differences of opinion about in deciding what our policies are, but this one should be pretty straightforward."
Diane Peterson, an associate director for immunization projects at the Immunization Action Coalition, also said she was optimistic about growing cross-party support on a Minnesota bill pushing a policy similar to Michigan's. The bill, which was introduced last year by a Democrat but died in committee, would require parents to talk to a doctor before choosing not to vaccinate.
While the proposal initially had trouble attracting GOP lawmakers, she said, some were beginning to sign on -- and she hoped that public outcry over the measles outbreak would continue to drive support for vaccine legislation.
"I'm hopeful that this can continue as not a partisan issue by any means," she said. "It isn't that it's a split on the issue. It's just a very small minority that are against vaccines."
The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Feb. 2-4 among U.S. adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.
The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here. More details on the poll's methodology are available here.
Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov's reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample, rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.