Christie, Rand Hamstring Themselves on Vaccines

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his wife tour a medical facility in England where the flu vaccine is manufactured. Asked by a reporter if he thinks vaccines should be mandatory, Christie said he thinks parental choice is important. REUTERS/Neil Hall

Getting vaccinated isn't fun. It hurts. But it's better for you in the long run.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky should have taken that lesson to heart before throwing in with the anti-vaccination crowd. The likely presidential contenders have said they believe parents should be given some choice when it comes to vaccinating their children. Their position puts them at odds with the near-unanimous position of the medical establishment, not to mention longtime support for vaccinations in Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Even Christie's own New Jersey Department of Health tells visitors to its website that "in the last 50 years, vaccinations have led to a 95 percent decrease in vaccine-preventable disease."

Despite that, when asked by a reporter if he believed vaccines for diseases like measles should be mandatory, Christie responded, "I...understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that's the balance that the government has to decide." As on February 1, more than 100 cases of measles had been reported in the U.S. after an unvaccinated child introduced the disease to park-goers at Disney World in California.

Obama aide Daniel Pfeiffer used the comment to get in a quick jab on Twitter against Christie's possible 2016 presidential campaign, saying "not clarifying" his remark "will say a lot about how he plans to run his race."

@MarkHalperin @GovChristie @mikiebarb @mattkatz00 not clarifying will say a lot abt how he plans to run his race

— J. Goldman -Archived (@Goldman44) February 2, 2015

For their part, other would-be presidential candidates, such as Marco Rubio and Ben Carson, are sticking up for inoculations. So has Hillary Clinton.

Paul, a certified ophthalmologist, went further, telling conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham on Monday he thought most vaccines should be voluntary.

That's actually a backpedaling for Paul, who in 2009 told Alex Jones of Infowars that he is opposed to mandatory vaccines because "the first sort of thing you see with martial law is mandates." He also said he would not receive the swine flu vaccine or allow his children to receive it. "I worry, because the last flu vaccine we had in the 1970s, more people died from the vaccine than died from the swine flu," he said.

However, investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found no evidence the vaccine and deaths were causally related.

Coming out against mandatory vaccination could be a nonissue in a week, let alone a year. But in a 2015 poll by the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of adults said vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella and polio should be required for children. Presumably, Iowa caucus-goers, who include a large number of religious and libertarian-minded citizens, might find mandatory vaccinations to be too much government intervention, just as they do for regulations for homeschooling and consumption of raw milk.

Will winning votes early on in Iowa be worth compromising a strong footing for the general election in 2016? A closer look at Pew's demographics should have anti-vaccine candidates worried. Those most likely to think vaccines cause autism, and thus least likely to vaccinate their children? Young adults: 41 percent of those aged 18 to 29 think vaccination should be a choice. And millennials vote at a lower rate than any other age cohort. Plus, they tend to vote Democratic in presidential elections, so Republicans have little ground to gain by coming out against vaccines.

The elderly, meanwhile, with memories of polio and other communicable diseases, are overwhelmingly against choice in vaccination. Only 22 percent of those 55 and older think parents should be given the choice to vaccinate their children. And older Americans, as is commonly known, vote more than any other group.

Outside of the straw poll, neither Christie nor Paul has much to gain in Iowa. "For the most part, Iowa is a very vaccinated state," says Lori Parsons, executive director of the Iowa Immunization Coalition. "We certainly have small pockets of people who want a medical exemption, which everyone does, and we also allow for a religious exemption," she says. Only 19 states allow "philosophical" exemptions, but Iowa isn't one.