New poll investigating legacy of Grateful Dead says as much about boomers as the band itself

Gordon Hensley Contributor
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In the nascent days of the Grateful Dead’s uniquely American musical odyssey (I’ll forego the hackneyed “Long Strange Trip”), the band played free Haight-Ashbury parties hosted by The Diggers – a self-styled community action group of improvisational performance artists, dedicated to creating a society devoid of money and capitalism.

Nearly 45 years later, The Diggers would likely be stunned to discover the Grateful Dead’s most ardent fans make more than $100,000 annually. Such is the result of a poll I recently commissioned with the Mellman Group, one of the nation’s premier Democratic polling firms, to explore attitudes about the band I saw 187 times between 1977 and the end of the road, in 1995, when Jerry Garcia checked out. Put aside for the moment I’m a Republican, whose first campaign gig was working in New Hampshire for Ronald Reagan in 1980.

The diversity of the Grateful Dead fan base has always been a source of personal curiosity. After all, I’d met a first officer on a nuclear sub, a British-born Nepalese goat herder, a neurosurgeon, a Harvard math professor and a senior economist at the World Bank. And I met the latter not at a D.C. show, where the World Bank is based, but in rural Maine. As the highest-grossing touring act of the 1980s, and still packing them into stadiums until the end, I became especially curious about the fan base demographics while working on Capitol Hill as a youthful press secretary – when throngs of Hill staff from the Senate and House office buildings would ditch the suit, and mosey on down to RFK stadium for weeknight summer shows.

I first came up with the idea of actually going through with and paying for a Grateful Dead survey in 2008, several hours after a meeting with then-Senator Norm Coleman Minnesota Republican, who was engaged in a heated contest against then-candidate Al Franken, himself a major Grateful Dead enthusiast. While tooling around Georgetown listening to an especially hot 1990 Madison Square Garden show on my iPod, the senator called my cell requesting a meeting about his campaign. While I hadn’t been regularly working the presidential and statewide campaign circuit since the late 90s after shifting largely to health-care communications, I was again on the radar screen from my 2006 stint as a consultant to Senator Bob Corker’s, Tennessee Republican, bruising race against former Rep. Harold Ford. As we were among the few GOP Senate campaigns to eke out a win that cycle, my office phone was lighting up again like the old days, asking for campaign help.

Coleman, with a reputation as a great guy with a top-notch constituent service record, wanted to discuss media and communications strategy. What the Hell? Why not? As I’d be headed to New York City the next day to see former Dead guitarist Bob Weir’s band, RatDog — my favorite contemporary Grateful Dead offshoot band, by far — meeting the senator on Capitol Hill before my train from Union Station would be convenient. While business commitments would prevent me from working his campaign on the ground for the last two key months, like I did Corker’s, folks in my line of work don’t make it a practice to turn down U.S. senators seeking your advice and counsel — especially a guy you like in a big national race.

The GOP incumbent, a native New Yorker, former Democratic Mayor of St. Paul and, famously, a Woodstock attendee, was also at one time a roadie for British guitarist Alvin Lee’s band, Ten Years After. He’s also very into Bob Dylan. All of this was very cool. This would no doubt be an interesting meeting with the senator, and I intended to interject with a discussion about music, not just campaign business.

Never one for formality, I showed up at Bistro Bis, our meeting spot on the Hill, with my packed bags dressed in jeans — and a blazer to meet a minimal standard of decorum. I joined him in a booth, and he immediately asked if I was heading out of town. “Yes, Senator, I’m headed to New York to see a three night run of Bob Weir’s band, RatDog.” As I waited for his reaction with gleeful anticipation, the twinkle in his eye told me this would be fun, and he replied, “You mean those Grateful Dead guys?”

“Yes, Senator — that would be them.” Coleman smiled mischievously. This was fun from the outset.  After scribbling his latest polling data on a paper placement, and munching on bagels and fruit as we discussed how Corker beat Ford, he really lit up when I called an audible and changed the topic to rock and roll. He discussed his Woodstock experience, his roadie days with Ten Years After, and his philosophical metamorphosis from Democrat to Republican. Coleman’s humility, humanity and passion for government service made it crystal clear why he was a rising GOP star, and deserving reelection. Despite having nothing against Al Franken — I no longer take politics personally; its bad karma — I regret to this day that I could not drop what I was doing, and ship out to Minnesota.

Later that night at the RatDog show in Manhattan, I told my buddies about the meeting, and we were in a perpetual state of hilarity conjuring up hypothetical 30-second negative ads to run against Franken. How ironic it would have been to execute this faux plot against Franken with ideas generated at this very crucible of contemporary “Grateful Deadness” — ostensibly part of Franken’s base vote. It was decided then and there the poll must be completed.

After that 2008 show, and two years of procrastination, I recently had the Mellman Group ascertain a basic national name ID on the Grateful Dead, and then assessed the favorable/unfavorable rating among various subgroups. That was a simple, logical way to dive into this project. The survey sample was 1016 randomly selected adults over age 18, with a 3.1 percent margin of error. While I had no idea what the national name ID would be, I feared simply the name “Grateful Dead” would put boost the unfavorable higher than favorable.

I was wrong — big-time: Not only does the Grateful Dead have a hard name ID of 54 percent — nearly 150 million Americans are aware of them, which is impressive, and higher than I thought it would be — but the band’s FAV/UNFAV is 38/16, a 2:1 ratio any Washington incumbent running in this harsh 2010 environment would eagerly expropriate. Bottom line, this means approximately 50 million Americans have a net favorable impression of the band, and even Republicans give the Grateful Dead a higher FAV than UNFAV.

Here’s the FAV/UNFAV breakout by self-indentified political affiliation:

Republicans: 31/26

Independent leaning Republicans: 35/23

Independents: 36/19

Independent leaning Democrats: 45/17

Democrats: 37/14

FAV/UNFAV — By income:

100k or more 53/20

75k-100k 39/24

50k-75k 35/21

35k-50k 32/15

Less than 35k 30/19

Other results worth noting are that the Grateful Dead have the highest name ID in the Northeast, with 67 percent (versus 55 percent in the Midwest; 55 percent in the West; and 47 percent in the South), and that seniors 65+ are the only subgroup in the entire survey to give the Grateful Dead a net unfavorable rating (18/21 — versus a 39/23 for ages 55-64; a 52/36 for ages 45-54; a 47/22 for ages 35-44; and a 27/13 for ages 18-34). In the final analysis, the “news” from this survey is the fact that, by and large, the Grateful Dead fan base consists of the wealthiest among us with the passage of time.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, in his excellent 2000 sociological treatise, “BoBos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There,” explains that during the 1980s and ’90s, “The values of the bourgeois mainstream culture and the values of the 1960s counterculture merged. In the resolution between the culture and the counterculture, it is impossible to tell who co-opted whom, because in reality the bohemians and the bourgeois co-opted each other — and they emerge from this process as bourgeois bohemians, or BoBos.”

No doubt, Jerry Garcia, a wry social observer himself, would find this all terribly amusing – including the fact the Grateful Dead’s business model, which it stumbled into serendipitously, is being taught at prestigious business schools. But it also reflects his and the band’s wisdom in ensuring the band’s massive, decades-long touring platform would never become a propaganda effort for any political cause or candidate. Gratefully, it was all about the music, and, to me, a celebration of America and freedom itself. Now, with, GOP Springsteen freak Chris Christie serving as governor of New Jersey, I’d be curious to see how Bruce Springsteen’s high visibility political activism on behalf of Democrats has impacted his own fan base. But someone else can finance that arcane but interesting inquiry.

Gordon Hensley is a former communications director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), communications director to Governor Buddy Roemer (R-LA), and communications consultant to Governor George Pataki (R-NY).