the inside game

One of Democrats’ Biggest Draws This Year? Dave Matthews.

Jamming out the white suburban Gen-X vote.

Dave Matthews and Raphael Warnock greet each other onstage at Coca-Cola Roxy in Atlanta. Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images
Dave Matthews and Raphael Warnock greet each other onstage at Coca-Cola Roxy in Atlanta. Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Senator Raphael Warnock’s supporters lined up for hours ahead of a rally in Atlanta on the last Monday in November, with early voting in full swing ahead of his runoff against Herschel Walker. They weren’t there for Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, or even Bernie Sanders. It wasn’t Barack Obama, either — he isn’t due to deliver his closing message in town until Thursday.

This time, the crowd was gathered at a concert venue, across from the Braves’ stadium, to hear from Dave Matthews, the 55-year-old jam-band leader who has improbably become a real draw for Democrats in the closing hours of 2022.

The atmosphere was more warm catch-up than an irreverent concert. “Tell everyone here to vote for Senator Warnock, and tell them not to vote if they’re not gonna!” was as spicy as Matthews got, matched with the senator’s dad joke that, “You came out here to hear me sing.” Campaigning for Democratic candidates since 2004, Matthews is the kind of inoffensive surrogate who excites some targeted audiences even if other, younger ones cringe at his music — but who’s also unlikely to veer too far off-message, even if he is hardly a rousing galvanizer on the stump.

Onstage in Atlanta, flanked by a huge “VOTE” sign and two leather armchairs, the jeans-and-flannel-clad musician stumbled slightly through his introduction, but explained that he was interested in Warnock’s race because “I get a little bit afraid of if truth is banished from political discourse, then it is really hard to go in the right direction.” He faced a sea of dozens of raised iPhones held aloft by a crowd that got Warnock’s voting rights-focused stump speech and a chat about the importance of voting, alongside the quick concert.

Early voting numbers have broken records in the state, and the concert was a centerpiece of Warnock’s effort to try and woo unconvinced voters, largely white Gen-Xers in the suburbs. The appeal is not always obvious or congruous, but the demographic may prove decisive. General-election exit polls found that Georgians between 40 and 49 years of age favored Warnock slightly, and an AARP poll conducted jointly by Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s pollsters ahead of the runoff further demonstrated that age band’s centrality: Warnock was ahead by over 20 points among all voters under 50, a figure that matched the general-election result, and Walker led by nine points among those over 50, a slight increase for the Republican from November’s vote.

Warnock is practiced at appealing to white suburban swing voters — particularly around Atlanta — after a barrage of clearly racialized attack ads in his first races for office in 2020 and 2021 tried painting him as a crime-friendly socialist radical. Then, he countered with a warm ad featuring the puffer-vested candidate walking a beagle named Alvin past picket-fenced homes. His acoustic-guitar-filled appearance with Matthews hit similar notes. Matthews “brings a lot of good feelings and nostalgia,” explained Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist who works often to help campaigns deploy supportive musicians effectively.

Campaigns have been relying on concerts as get-out-the-vote tools for years, often using them as opportunities to directly encourage attendees to cast their ballots but also as chances to collect voter contact information so they can follow up and recruit volunteers for the final push. Concerts are traditionally more useful than standard celebrity endorsements, even from musicians — in the 2021 runoff, long-feuding Atlanta rappers Jeezy and Gucci Mane interrupted a livestreamed joint appearance in a local strip club to let Stacey Abrams pitch viewers on voting — because they capture an especially engaged and geographically predictable audience. “People love a good old-fashioned campaign rally with some good old-fashioned live music,” said Elrod. “It makes folks excited, and is a mobilizing tool to get people to show up.”

Matthews’s stop in Atlanta was his fourth for a Senate candidate in recent weeks. As Democrats shifted into full-time GOTV efforts late last month, he popped up on consecutive days in Columbus with Tim Ryan, Raleigh with Cheri Beasley and DNC chairman Jaime Harrison, and Pittsburgh with John Fetterman — a show that was moved to a bigger stage than initially planned due to a surge in local interest after Fetterman’s shaky debate performance.

The appearances carry some clear risk. They, like all similar shows, have become predictable fodder for the Republican opposition that routinely labels its opponents as out-of-touch celebrity-adjacent elitists with questionable taste. (“Haven’t Georgia voters suffered enough?” a Republican Senate campaign wing spokesman asked the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ahead of Matthews’s concert.) It’s occasionally clear that the candidates and the artist aren’t exactly on the same wavelength. (Fetterman used to sport a Nine Inch Nails–inspired tattoo.) And it was lost on no one in Georgia that two of Matthews’s three general-election hosts, Ryan and Beasley, went on to lose in November.

Yet Elrod said that as campaigns make calculations about their turnout targets, bringing in a musician with a long record of such performances is an attractive option: “You want to make sure you’re bringing in people who can actually articulate in their own words why they’re supporting a particular candidate.”

It also helps that a small-footprint, acoustic-first artist who is already on tour is, with few exceptions, a far less expensive get than some flashier targets like the ones that have dotted major Democratic candidates’ closing stretches in recent years. To many in Democratic politics, a concert like his represents a low-cost, medium-to-high-reward investment.

All the better if it can spark a sense of nostalgia in the exact voters Warnock needs. The biggest applause of the night may have come when a vested Warnock completed the scene by walking Alvin onstage for the beagle’s own turn in the spotlight.

One of Democrats’ Biggest Draws This Year? Dave Matthews.