At the same time, Sperling was using a more traditional vehicle for societal transformation: politics, his old love from college. Starting in 1994 Sperling joined forces with Soros to fund a dozen state ballot initiatives to change drug laws, especially those governing marijuana possession.
After the 2002 election, discouraged by the drubbing the Democrats received, he called some old friends from academia and his ballot activism. Suzanne Helburn, a University of Colorado professor and expert on child care, Samuel George, a political consultant, John Morris, an economics professor at the University of Colorado, and Carl Hunt, a consultant specializing in public utilities, were invited to a retreat in Cozumel. Together they plotted the outline for "The Great Divide," which they all co-wrote.
John Sperling and "Great Divide" co-author Suzanne Helburn discuss their theory of two Americas. Their book got some buzz from a $2 million Sperling-financed ad campaign.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
This is his entourage on his $2 million road trip to sell the idea. As they gather in a hotel room at the Four Seasons in Georgetown, the atmosphere is less PowerPoint than teacher's lounge. They joke about who was more of a hippie back then, tease "John" affectionately about changing his bedpan. Sperling doesn't act like a bossy billionaire. He lets George and Helburn do most of the talking and gets his own water, fiddling with what he calls the "new-fangled" bottle.
The book compiles statistics to paint a stark difference between the two sides. Retro states have a higher percentage of Christian fundamentalists who believe the end times will happen in their lifetime, who are "hostile to science." Their economies, based on oil, gas, large-scale farming, low-wage manufacturing and military installations, depend heavily on subsidies. They receive much more from the federal government than they pay in taxes.
The Metro states, meanwhile, are the "economic engine of America," thriving on financial services and information industries.
"Think of it this way. They have Wal-Mart, we have Neiman Marcus," says George, half joking.
But that kind of comparison is exactly what the Republicans seize on. "We would say it reflects the liberal elite of the John Kerry campaign," says Christine Iverson, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
It's a criticism echoed by historian Joel Kotkin, who argued in an essay published in The Washington Post that Sperling's prescription exacerbates the worst cartoon of Kerry and the Democrats by appealing to the urban elitist side of the Democratic Party, hip high-tech executives and Hollywood moguls, what Kotkin calls "a new social elite."
But Sperling responds that he is actually a New Deal Democrat who wants to bring the party back to its roots. "No one could call me a narrow-class elitist," he says. "I framed it in a way FDR would. It's about the jobless, single women who have had the safety net yanked out from under them. It's about half of young black men in the criminal justice system. There are horrors all around us and the Democratic Party does not seem to see that."
He argues there are six states that voted for Bush in 2000 that could be turned -- Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire and Virginia -- if the Democrats stressed the right themes, namely women's issues, health care and job protection. Sperling is working with pollster Celinda Lake to do some post-election analysis and plans to keep the Great Divide project running for five years.
John Podesta of the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank, argues that Sperling's data is intriguing but his approach is doomed. "It would be a hard sell to convince Americans that we should just forget about retro America," he says. Sperling's proposal is a "mirror image of Karl Rove. It embraces wedge politics and just tries to get you to 51 percent. And it just seems inconceivable Kerry would run a political strategy based on that."
The wavering polls have Sperling on edge. Ask how he feels about the election and Sperling is not his usual swaggering, itching-for-a-fight self.
"Tentative" is the best he can manage. "It's possible he could win."