Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at the Sun Sentinel.
Almost everywhere in Florida, there is a clear pattern: A community’s support for former President Donald Trump’s election in 2020 is a stunningly accurate predictor of the likelihood residents are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus halfway through 2021.
Higher support for Trump translates, with few exceptions, into lower COVID-19 vaccination rates. And in counties where President Joe Biden performed better, residents are generally much more likely to be vaccinated.
The divergent vaccination paths have important implications as the highly contagious Delta variant has gained a foothold, something that scientists warn is a threat that could result in surges of the virus that threaten to sicken and kill — predominately those who refuse to get the shots.
“With the Delta variant right now, this is frightening,” said Dr. Leslie Beitsch, former chairman of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Social Medicine at Florida State University’s College of Medicine. “Right now, we’re fooling around, and it’s really dangerous.”
The correlation between vaccination rates and presidential candidate is clear, and strong, said Patrick Bernet, an associate professor of health administration at the Florida Atlantic University College of Business.
“The higher a county votes GOP, the stronger that vote — the much, much lower their vaccination rates,” Bernet said.
He plotted presidential and vaccination rates by county and said the pattern is easy to see when displayed on a computer screen. “This doesn’t happen much statistically,” Bernet said. “This is something you can see from 20 feet away.”
Charles Zelden, a professor of history and legal studies who specializes in politics and voting at Nova Southeastern University, likens the political fissure over vaccination to the divide that preceded the Civil War. “Both the North and the South truly believed they were defending the Constitution with their actions, even though their actions were the opposite.”
Today, Zelden said, “if you’re a strong Trumpist, you question the need for [vaccination]. If you’re a Biden voter, you want it and you’ve gotten it.”
In the nine Florida counties in which Trump got 80% of the vote or more, 25.5% to 31% of adults were fully vaccinated, according to data current to midweek from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Counties in which Trump received less than 51% of the vote — his statewide total — had fully vaccinated adult populations ranging from 48.9% to 69.2.%.
- In Broward County, home to the largest number of Democratic voters in Florida, Biden received 64.5% of the vote to 34.7% for Trump. Data this week from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed 59% of the county’s adults are fully vaccinated.
- In Orange County, where Biden received 60.9% to Trump’s 37.8%, the CDC reported 58% of adults were fully vaccinated.
- In Palm Beach County, the presidential race went 56% Biden and 43.2% Trump; totally vaccinated, 57.7%.
In Hernando County, north of Tampa, Trump received 65% of the vote — and 46% of adults are fully vaccinated.
In Bay County, where Panama City is the county seat, Trump won 71% of the vote. The county’s vaccination rate is 41%. And the Panhandle’s Santa Rosa County, where Trump won 72%, the vaccination rate was also 41%.
The phenomenon isn’t unique to Florida. States that went for Biden generally have higher vaccination rates than Trump states.
Florida, which awarded its 29 electoral votes to Trump, ranked 26th among the states in percentage of residents fully vaccinated, Becker’s Hospital Review reported Friday. Only one state with a higher vaccination rate than Florida awarded electoral votes to Trump.
The Kaiser Family Foundation, the nonpartisan nonprofit that focuses on health issues, reported Thursday that “the Red/Blue divide” on vaccination rates is increasing.
As more people get shots, the percentages of people fully vaccinated are increasing in Trump and Biden counties nationwide. But, Kaiser found, the growth is higher in counties that went for Biden.
As of April 22, Kaiser found, the average vaccination rates were 20.6% in Trump counties and 22.8% in Biden counties, a difference of 2.2 percentage points. On May 11, the gap was 6.5 percentage points. By July 6 it was 11.7 percentage points.
There are some notable exceptions in Florida.
Sumter County, which has the state’s highest rate of fully vaccinated adults, is Trump territory. Sumter County is dominated by The Villages, the retirement megalopolis about an hour northwest of Orlando and an hour south of Gainesville. (The Villages extends into parts of two other counties.)
Trump received 68% of the vote in Sumter County, where 72% of adults are fully vaccinated.
Analysts pointed to several possible factors: The Villages attract lots of affluent and well-educated residents, seniors are by far the most likely population group to get vaccinated because COVID-19 is so much more dangerous for older people, and Gov. Ron DeSantis was a strong, public vaccination promoter in the community.
“The first people that were vaccinating at the time when the pandemic was the deadliest were the elderly. So a lot of those people in the Villages, it wasn’t a Trump thing, it wasn’t a Biden thing, it was a ‘Get it because I don’t want to die thing,’” Zelden said.
The state’s largest county, Miami-Dade, has the highest percentage of fully vaccinated adults among Florida’s urban counties — even though Trump performed relatively well there in 2020.
The CDC reported 69.2% of the county’s adults fully vaccinated — 10 percentage points higher than Broward, the next most-vaccinated urban county.
Biden received a majority of the vote in Miami-Dade County, 53.3%, but Trump’s 46% was a dramatic improvement from 2016, when he received 33.8% of the vote and Hillary Clinton got 63.2%.
- The big increase in Trump support from 2016 to 2020 doesn’t necessarily mean the kind of embrace of Trumpism that might be in play elsewhere. An outsized factor could be the Republicans’ successful efforts in the Hispanic community, where they branded Democrats as socialists and Democrats failed to effectively counter the messaging.
- The reality of COVID-19 might have been so great in Miami-Dade, which was affected early and hard, that it overcame political inclinations. “It’s hard to deny what you’ve seen firsthand,” Beitsch said.
The county has 13% of the state’s population — and has had 21.5% of the state’s cases and 17% of the deaths. “Miami-Dade was the county that was the hardest hit with COVID in all of Florida. So it’s not surprising there are a lot of people in Miami-Dade, no matter what their political views, who said, ‘I’m going to get me that vaccine,’” Zelden said.
Bernet said he’s searched for other possible factors, including the average age of counties’ residents, poverty, race and ethnicity. Nothing accounts for different vaccination levels as much as politics. “I’ve tried to take politics out of it, and it just seems to be one of the most powerful determinates of how people behave,” he said.
A June 16 University of South Florida poll asked Floridians if they’d received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. The responses showed the divide on the issue: 27% of Democrats said they had not been vaccinated and 42% of Republicans said they hadn’t.
USF pollsters also found more Republicans than Democrats opposed requiring cruise passengers and theme park guests to prove vaccinations and more Republicans than Democrats opposed mandating vaccines for pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade or college students.
A nationwide Gallup survey released on June 28 found 29% of Americans think the pandemic is over in the United States. The poll revealed an enormous gap, with 57% of Republicans saying the pandemic is over, compared to just 4% of Democrats.
On Thursday, 14 of the 16 Democratic members of the Florida Senate wrote to DeSantis urging him to act to “close the vulnerability gap with urgency and action.” They said he needs to tap the power of his office “to strongly urge reluctant residents to get vaccinated.”
Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’ press secretary, said Friday by email that already been done. “COVID-19 vaccines are readily and freely available everywhere in Florida,” she said. DeSantis and other state officials “have consistently encouraged Floridians to receive the vaccine, which is available at many convenient sites throughout our state.”
Statewide, she said, “multiple synchronized messaging campaigns” in several languages are aimed at reassuring that vaccines are safe, effective and free of charge.
The Power Lunch – Florida Politics Newsletter
A lunch-hour look at what’s trending in Florida politics.
Beitsch and Zelden are skeptical that the political skepticism can be overcome. “The people who are most in need of convincing aren’t going to listen to Biden,” Zelden said, adding that the ingrained opposition is so powerful among Trump supporters that “I just don’t see it getting better.”
Low vaccination rates mean the nation won’t reach herd immunity, a level that would impede spread of the virus, Beitsch said. With many people unvaccinated in the U.S. and around the world, he said there are more opportunities for virus mutations to take hold.
The result will be more deaths, but the impact won’t be spread evenly, said Beitsch a former commissioner of health in Oklahoma and former deputy secretary of the Florida Department of Health. In the 1980s and early ’90s he was medical director at the Health Department in Broward County.
“We may see some real changes to the demographics of our country if we have a pandemic and another half a million die,” he said. “They will disproportionately be people who choose not to be vaccinated.”
Beitsch lamented the divide and what it may portend. “It’s unpatriotic. It’s un-American. It’s the opposite of what made this country great,” he said. “It has the potential for catastrophe for our entire country, and potentially the entire world.”