One of the Most Important Men in Politics You Haven’t Heard Of

By RealClearPolitics
May 13, 2009

Sergio Bendixen, an immigrant from Peru who became an American citizen at 15, is one of the most influential people in American politics. What separates him from others of a similar title is his relative anonymity. Bendixen’s political consulting firm Bendixen & Associates, founded in 1984 and now located in Miami provides an all-in-one resource for U.S. candidates to receive public opinion polls, communications consulting, multilingual research, and focus groups. Bendixen is the Democratic Party’s go-to-guy on the ever important Hispanic vote. Bendixen’s efforts are not limited to the United States. He conducts extensive efforts in Latin American elections, where like in the U.S., he has personally pioneered the region’s public polling, research, and political advertising.

As a 2003 Sun-Sentinel article noted, “If you want to know what Latinos or Latino Americans are thinking, ask Sergio”. Because American politics is becoming increasingly affected by the Hispanic vote, especially in swing states that helped Barack Obama win the Presidency, his importance in American politics has never been greater. And yet, despite Bendixen’s monopoly on Hispanic public opinion and vote getting, his overwhelming success with the Hillary Clinton campaign in the Democratic Primary and Obama campaign in the General Election, he remains far from the spotlight. Bendixen is, despite his enormous clout among Democratic politicians, the most underappreciated and underreported man in American politics.


RCP: How did you get to where you are today?

Bendixen: McGovern was my very first political experience; obviously I had very strong feelings about the Vietnam War. Even though it was my first campaign, I got to run Dade County (now Miami-Dade) because nobody in Florida wanted much to do with the McGovern campaign. It was a great opportunity. But McGovern finished sixth in the Florida primary and I decided on primary night that McGovern wasn’t going anywhere. I went to Peru and traveled all over Latin America for a few months. But one day, in a bus going from Potosi to Sucre in Bolivia, I found a Newsweek about six weeks old. It said “Prairie Populist Wins Wisconsin” on its rumpled cover. McGovern had not only survived his Florida debacle but was now the likely Democratic nominee for president. So I came back to the United States as quickly as I could. By the time I arrived the convention had already happened. My contacts in the McGovern campaign were surprised. “Where did you disappear to? We thought you were dead”. But they were also happy I was back. “You are a great organizer; you won the ten precincts you were in charge of. We never got a chance to tell you because you took off too quickly. We’re looking for somebody to run Dade County.” I got $50 a week and gas money and even though we didn’t win Florida, it was very much like the Obama campaign last year. Thousands of people got involved in Miami and around the state. By 1975, McGovernites had basically taken over the Democratic Party in Florida. I was elected to the DNC and, at that time, was its youngest member.

RCP: You worked for Jimmy Carter as well.

Bendixen: My first national political experience was with the Jimmy Carter campaign. Starting in 1975, we put together the Florida Democratic Convention straw ballot where Jimmy Carter defeated George Wallace, and convinced the Democratic establishment and the national press that Carter could actually defeat Wallace in the real Florida Primary in 1976. That led to, with some encouragement from us, convincing candidates like Mo Udall, Sergeant Shriver and Fred Harris to leaving Florida to Carter, because of course, everyone agreed, he had no chance to become president. Carter defeated Wallace in the Florida Primary and that pretty much ended Wallace’s influence within the Democratic Party. (Bendixen laughing) But Carter kind of broke the deal by becoming President.

RCP: How did Bendixen Associates come about?

Bendixen: I had worked in Congress for Bill Lehman (a North Miami Beach Democrat) from 1974 through 1982 as a District Representative in Miami and as his Executive Assistant in Washington. Lehman introduced me to Senator Alan Cranston in 1982 and the Californian asked me to run his Presidential campaign. I said yes. And even though I’m sure most people do not remember much about the Cranston for President Campaign, it actually got terrific press in ’83. We did very well in straw polls at Democratic State Conventions in Massachusetts, Maine, Iowa and Alabama and defeated Walter Mondale – the strong front runner – in California and Wisconsin. I received a lot of publicity and after Cranston was eliminated in the New Hampshire Primary in early ‘84, I opened my Bendixen Associates office in Washington. We worked on all types of campaigns in Latin America and the United States. I helped Oscar Arias become President of Costa Rica. 1984 was also the year that Spanish television started to become important in the United States. The first national network – Univision (then S.I.N.) – started looking for people who spoke Spanish and had experience in U. S. and Latin American politics. I was the only one they found. I did many projects for them in the first five years – mostly exit polls in presidential elections in Latin America – but by 1989 they had grown to the point where they offered me one hell of a deal. Univision said put your business on hold, we don’t want any conflicts of interest, and become our full-time political commentator/analyst/correspondent/pollster and, by the way, move to California. The big deal in Los Angeles was that for the first time Latinos were going to elect a county commissioner (Gloria Molina eventually won the seat). I stayed in California for ten years and covered not only the California scene but also Hispanic politics nationally. Hispanics were just beginning to emerge at that time as a national force. In the ‘80s, it was only the Cubans in Miami, the Puerto Ricans in New York City and the Mexican Americans in the Valley of Texas but at the national level and in all other states, the Hispanic electorate was insignificant. It all began to change in the ‘90s and then Pete Wilson appeared on the scene with Proposition 187. I was in the middle of that.

RCP: He (Wilson) must be your favorite politician.

Bendixen: (laughing) He is my favorite. He made my career. He energized Hispanic America in a way that nobody expected. Those ten years in California – working full time for Univision and then Telemundo – allowed me to study and understand the Hispanic community in a unique way. That is my greatest advantage over other consultants – I understand the Latino mindset better than anyone else. That is why I can help candidates win elections. I believe that the combination of the political campaign experience of the ‘70s and ‘80s with my involvement with the Hispanic community through my television work in the ‘90’s is what has made me a valuable consultant to the Democratic Party today.

RCP: And that’s a good lead-in to your influence in the Democratic Party today. You worked for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primary this past Presidential election. Describe how that came about and the campaign itself.

Bendixen: My relationship with Hillary Clinton comes from when I left Univision and Telemundo and moved to Miami to reopen my consulting business in 2001. One of the first things I did was to come to Washington that year, Tom Daschle helped me a lot, and I gave conference after conference on how the Hispanic vote was growing, on how many Latino voters spoke Spanish only, on the importance and the influence of the Spanish TV networks and on how the Republicans were making gains under the leadership of the Bush brothers. Simon Rosenberg and the New Democrat Network became my partners and we started the Hispanic Project at NDN. I think one of my most important contributions to the Democratic Party was alerting them to what was going on. My predictions became true in 2004. The Republicans got 40 percent of the presidential vote – the highest since the Hispanic vote became significant in the early 90’s. I continued to make presentations to the Senate Democrats and Hillary Clinton was always there. She invited me to her office several times and we developed a good relationship.  She became convinced that I understood the Hispanic vote better than anyone else and that I could help the Democratic Party recover our losses. It was very natural then that when she decided to run for President, she asked me to be the strategist for her Hispanic effort and to produce all of her Spanish language TV and radio ads.

RCP: And looking back on it, you would say Hillary’s performance in the Democratic Primary among Hispanics was a resounding success, correct?

Bendixen: It was a huge success. Even though Barack Obama worked extremely hard to win the Hispanic vote in the primaries and spent millions on Spanish TV and radio ads, Hillary Clinton got two-thirds of the Latino vote in most of the Democratic primaries. We were able to defeat him by a two to one margin in every key contest from the Nevada Caucuses to Super Tuesday and the California Primary and then from the crucial Texas contests to the final primary in Puerto Rico. Why? Clinton ran a very aggressive Hispanic media campaign on the issues in Spanish and English. She had other significant advantages – the popularity of Bill Clinton and her own personal history with the Latino community. I think we ran a very effective campaign. It didn’t get a lot of publicity but our overall Latino campaign – the research program, the Spanish and English TV and radio ads, the press operation, the grassroots organization, the surrogates, the campaign events – was unprecedented;  nobody else has ever run as comprehensive a Hispanic campaign for President as Hillary Clinton did in 2007-2008.

RCP: After Hillary loses the primary, Obama immediately hires you to run his Hispanic vote campaign. What was that like?

Bendixen: It was not difficult at all because we never ran against him in the primaries. There was not a single negative TV or radio Spanish commercial produced in the primaries. I don’t even think we ever mentioned his name in any of our ads. Our message was about health insurance, better public schools, a stable economy and jobs. It was as simple as that. We just hammered away at that message. The Obama campaign made it very easy for us to feel comfortable. They treated us with great respect. We felt welcome from day one.

RCP: How did your strategy change when you moved to Obama’s campaign and faced John McCain who was the best among the Republican candidates at attracting Hispanic voters? He had wide in-state success when running for Senate and Obama had struggled mightily to gain Hispanic support in the Democratic primary.

Amandi: To the Obama campaign’s credit, at the time, they understood politically that for them to win the Presidency, they needed to do the types of margins that Bill Clinton saw, and particularly in four critical states: Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida. And we had shown in our polling and Sergio had been forecasting for years that for the Democrats to recapture the electoral map nationally to give them the White House, they had to reverse the trend that the Bush and Republicans had shown among Hispanics four years earlier. The Obama campaign recognized this from the beginning, and they basically said ‘listen, we need you to do for us what you did for Hillary with Hispanics because if we can’t win these four states where we think the Hispanic vote is pivotal, we don’t have a chance.’

Bendixen: There was a clear strategic choice when we got involved with Obama. He was in the low 50s among Hispanics and McCain was in the low 40s or high 30s. That wasn’t good enough. We needed to get to 70; we needed to take points away from McCain and get most of the undecided – not an easy task. Our focus groups were clear: the 20 percent or so that we needed to pick up were not sold on Obama. They did not know much about him and felt that he would not keep many of his promises. But they were very much sold on the agenda of the Democratic Party. And so our greatest contribution to the Obama campaign was to convince them that in the first phase of the Hispanic general election campaign – from August through early October –  they had to campaign on health insurance, education, the economy, jobs and the war. The “sale” of Obama the man should come in the closing weeks after he had been defined by the issues. And they followed that strategy with great disciplined and we got very close to 70 percent of the Latino vote nationally. More importantly we won Florida because we carried the Hispanic vote for the first time ever and by a substantial margin and Obama’s strong performance among Hispanic voters helped him carry Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana.

Amandi: To their credit, because it was a little counterintuitive, we were in essence saying, “the campaign that you ran so successfully in the primary that won you the nomination featuring the person and the charisma and the personality of Obama does not work without these policies if you’re going to win the Hispanic undecided. So it was basically a leap of faith for them to say, ‘all right, we’re going to trust you guys, we’re not going to lead with our ace, our star card, Obama’s persona, but instead define him through the issues.

Bendixen: When we did our focus groups in early October, we found that because of Obama’s position on the issues, these ‘Hispanic undecideds” now felt a lot more comfortable with his candidacy. So the campaign produced a television commercial with Obama delivering the message in nearly “perfect” Spanish. It is arguably the most powerful Spanish political television commercial ever made. Why? You need to see it to understand its “seductive” quality.

RCP: How has Obama performed during his short time in office in terms of reaching out to the Hispanic community?

Bendixen: We’ve done two polls since he became President. The first was taken among all Hispanic voters in March and it showed him at about 80 percent approval. The other was taken among the most difficult of all Hispanic groups, the Cuban American electorate. The poll was on Obama’s Cuban policy and was reported on by The New York Times. It showed that about 60 percent of Cubans supported his new policy. So he’s done a remarkable job. I do not know if the Hispanic establishment is happy with his political appointments but at the grassroots, in terms of your average Hispanic voter, he’s extremely popular.

RCP: Describe the Cuban-American vote which was been steadfast Republican even when pundits predicted in recent years that Democrats would make significant inroads, although there does seem to be a generational divide with younger voters going Democrat.

Bendixen: A lot of people give all the credit for change to the younger generation of Cubans when the true agent of change and the more important group is Miami’s Cuban electorate the “Cuban immigrant” segment as opposed to the “Cuban exile” segment. We allow almost 30,000 Cubans to come to the US every year. Since the Mariel boatlift, about half a million Cubans have arrived in the United States. Most of them live in Miami and they have a completely different point of view on Cuba policy and on politics in general. The coalition of “Cuban immigrants” and Cubans born in the US is much more in favor of negotiations and dialogue with the Cuban regime while the older exiles are much more likely to support a confrontational approach. Nevertheless, what we saw in our latest poll is that even among the older exiles, Obama has done something remarkable. He’s gotten them to rethink their position on Cuba policy; and at least some of them are now willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

RCP: Is there anything good coming out of the GOP or positives you see in their message?

Bendixen: Well George Bush was fantastic at appealing to Hispanics. But his appeal was strictly personal. They have not found the issues that can connect them to this electorate. For many years they felt that the “social issues” were the key but that approach has not worked. It is true that Hispanics are more socially conservative than much of the Democratic Party. But they rarely vote based on their conservative positions on gay marriage or abortion. There’s a quote from a focus group participant that I still remember, “I didn’t come to America to get an abortion or to marry a gay person; I came to help my family have a better life.”

RCP: Explain how you have pioneered the use of multilingual polling in the U.S.

Bendixen: In 2001, I was approached by a San Francisco based organization, New America Media (New California Media then), that represents the ethnic media in the United States – Chinese and Korean newspapers, Vietnamese radio, Indian and Filipino magazines, African American weeklies, Spanish-language newspapers, Arabic television stations, etc., etc.  They wanted to measure the penetration and reach of their media in America. My answer was that it was “mission impossible” because the study would have to be done in at least 12 different languages, the samples would be difficult to create in a scientific way and finally that it would simply cost too much money – at least $250,000. But they got the funding from a number of foundations and we developed the methodology for asking the “same questions” in twelve different languages for samples designed by what is called “ethnic encoding.” Since then, we have conducted more than 15 multilingual polls for New America Media in at least 20 different languages. And so I think that we earned the right to call ourselves the “pioneers” on multilingual polling in the United States.

RCP: Explain your extensive work in Latin American politics which dates as far back as your introduction to U.S. politics.

Bendixen: I first got involved in Latin American consulting because of a simple reason. I was the only established political consultant in the US that spoke Spanish and I understood the political culture of Latin America which is so different from ours. In Venezuela, for example, the political advertising was dominated by the candidate in action or by the music rather than by issue messages. You have huge political rallies in Latin America with hundreds of thousands of people participating. And I got to work with or against most of the famous political consultants of our time – David Sawyer, Roger Ailes, Pat Caddell, David Doak, Mark Penn, Joe Napolitan, etc. It was a remarkable experience.

RCP: And a final Question: You are a 1970 graduate of Notre Dame.

Bendixen: Back when we had a football team.

RCP: Will you be protesting President Obama’s visit to Notre Dame?

Bendixen: No, I won’t be protesting, I will be cheering him on.