Republican governors crusading against vaccine mandates are facing significantly lower approval ratings on their handling of the coronavirus pandemic than their counterparts. But they're not worried.
From Florida to Texas to South Dakota, GOP governors have been on the front lines of the war against vaccine mandates, barring immunization requirements in their states and threatening to fight President Joe Biden's federal vaccine mandate in court. Just last week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott flat-out banned vaccine requirements, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis followed up by vowing to sue the Biden administration.
But new research shows governors in states without vaccine mandates - or where they've outright prohibited such a requirement - have "significantly lower" approval ratings for their handling of Covid-19. While many of these governors remain popular, some have seen dips in their overall approval ratings in recent months as their states faced the latest wave of coronavirus.
In states with vaccine mandates, 52 percent of people approve or strongly approve of their governors' handling of the pandemic, according to the latest survey from the Covid States Project, which has been tracking gubernatorial approval ratings for the past year and a half. That coronavirus approval rating drops to 42 percent for governors in states with no vaccine requirements. And it takes yet another hit - dropping to just 36 percent - in states where governors have barred vaccine mandates.
The findings could be temporary, and influenced by summer outbreaks that are now subsiding, but the study's authors believe the public's support for vaccine requirements is real, as is its distaste for those opposing the measures.
"Our findings really suggest that individuals in our survey were rewarding these governors who took proactive steps to combat the pandemic and they were punishing governors who prohibited public health policies that would combat the pandemic like vaccine mandates," said Alauna C. Safarpour, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy and one of the project's researchers.
Those ratings should be low enough to make any politician nervous. Safarpour warned, based on the research, that governors eschewing vaccine mandates "should really assess what's in their political best interests when it comes to the pandemic."
But aides to DeSantis and Abbott defended their actions as doing what's right by their constituents and combating the confusion stemming from Biden's yet-to-be-outlined vaccine requirements for federal workers and businesses with more than 100 employees.
"Leadership is about doing the right thing, which is not always the most popular thing, especially in the short term," DeSantis aide Christina Pushaw said.
Then there's the political calculus. Several Republican governors, including Abbott in Texas, are facing primary challenges from their right. Some, like DeSantis in Florida and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, have eyes on 2024. Both of those factors are sending GOP governors scrambling to shore up support among the party's base.
"That audience is front and center in all of these decisions," Republican consultant Brendan Steinhauser said.
And right now that base is anti-mandate. A recent CBS News/YouGov poll found that 64 percent of Republicans would prefer to vote for a candidate who encourages vaccines but that an even greater number - 75 percent - want a candidate who opposes mandates. A Morning Consult/POLITICO poll from August found only about 35 percent of Republicans were in favor of mandatory coronavirus vaccines.
Vaccine requirements "remain very unpopular with the Republican base," GOP strategist Ryan Williams said. "Any support for a vaccine mandate at this point would be damaging for any governor thinking of running for president as a Republican."
DeSantis has built a national reputation for fighting any type of Covid restrictions, including school mask mandates and efforts to force businesses to implement vaccine mandates on staff for customers.
As the Delta variant surged and DeSantis battled schools over mask mandates, his approval rating dropped below 50 percent, according to an August Quinnipiac University poll.
But DeSantis dug in. And as the Delta variant began receding and the number of new infections decreased, DeSantis saw his poll numbers nationally remain high among Republicans. A GOP poll found that DeSantis led former Vice President Mike Pence, 22-15, in a theoretical presidential matchup without former President Donald Trump on the ballot.
Now DeSantis is opening a new battle with the Biden administration over the proposed federal vaccine mandate, vowing to challenge the requirement in federal court and fining a local county $3.57 million after it ordered hundreds of its employees to be vaccinated.
"We basically don't want people to be discriminated against," DeSantis told reporters this past week. "This has become about politicians wanting to control people. … Why would you want to see people lose their livelihoods?"
Vaccine mandates are politically divisive but nationally have broad support. The Morning Consult/POLITICO poll from August showed eight in 10 Democrats and at least half of independent voters want to require vaccinations for all Americans. Roughly six in 10 American adults favor vaccine requirements for federal workers and employees of large companies, according to a mid-September Gallup poll. And they're backed by public health and infectious diseases experts who say such requirements can increase vaccinations and reduce severe illness, death and strain on the health care system.
Yet Abbott has similarly railed against mask and vaccine mandates in Texas, going so far this week as to issue an executive order barring "any entity" from enforcing a vaccine requirement.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki dismissed the ban as "politics," saying it's "pretty clear when you make a choice that's against all public health information and data out there that it's not based on what is in the interest of the people you are governing."
Abbott consultant Dave Carney rejected the notion that the Texas governor's recent actions carry any ulterior motives.
"It has nothing to do with politics," Carney said. "The governor did this based on the best science at the time and what was best for the state and the individuals. That's what he'll continue to do."
Abbott's overall job approval rating has been dipping, though. A September Quinnipiac poll showed the Texas governor had a 44 percent approval rating, while 47 percent disapproved of his job performance, putting him underwater for the first time since the university began polling the state in 2018.
Not all GOP governors have taken such a hard stance against vaccine mandates. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster - who vowed to fight Biden's vaccine mandate to the "gates of hell" - said this week he won't stop businesses from requiring the shots.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu signed legislation prohibiting the state from denying people access to public spaces and services if they're unvaccinated, but the law doesn't apply to state and county medical facilities and allows mandatory immunizations in prisons and jails when there's a significant health threat.
He railed against members of his own party on the state's Executive Council - a public body that shares administrative duties with the governor - which this week voted against accepting $27 million in federal funding to boost the state's vaccination efforts because they feared it would tie them to any "future directives" - including vaccine mandates - from the Biden administration.
And while he's ready to join forces with his Republican counterparts who are gearing up to challenge Biden's federal vaccine mandate, Sununu said he won't be following Abbott's lead in barring private employers from requiring the shots.
"You want the government to tell private businesses who to hire and fire?" Sununu said. "That is completely un-American."
Sununu's got his own political ambitions to think about as he mulls whether to seek reelection or challenge Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan in a showdown that could decide the balance of power in the Senate. He's seen his job-approval rating take a hit recently, but at 57 percent in September University of New Hampshire poll, the swing-state governor still enjoys far better numbers than some of his red-state colleagues.
"[Sununu] remains enormously popular," veteran New Hampshire-based Republican strategist Jim Merrill said.
But, either way, "I don't believe Republican governors are worrying about polls very much," Merrill added. "By encouraging personal responsibility and individual freedom in lieu of broad government enforced vaccine mandates, they are following their conservative principles and setting themselves apart for the upcoming cycle."
David Kihara contributed to this report.