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

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

By RealClearPolitics - May 12, 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 political public polling, research, and commercial 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.

 

INTERVIEW WITH SERGIO BENDIXEN, PRESIDENT OF BENDIXEN & ASSOCIATES ALONG WITH FERNAND AMANDI, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE FIRM

RCP: How did you get to where you are today?
Bendixen: McGovern was my very first political experience, obviously it came from my very strong feelings about the Vietnam War. That was the first campaign I was involved in because nobody in Florida wanted to run the McGovern campaign. From the very beginning, Florida was written off. I got the chance to run the campaign in Miami Dade County and that gave me a great opportunity to get to understand politics and campaigns. McGovern finished sixth in the Florida primary. So I figured on primary night, this guy isn't going anywhere, I might as well go back to Peru and I took off for a few months. I'll never forget, in a bus going from a little city in Bolivia to another, I found a Newsweek about three weeks old it says ‘Prairie Populist Wins Wisconsin' and it was my first news from the United States that McGovern had actually survived and was now a very likely candidate for the nomination. So I came back to the United States as quickly as I could, by that time the convention had already happened. My contacts in the McGovern campaign were like "Where did you disappear to? We thought you were dead". But they said "You were a great organizer, you did your ten precincts, we actually won those precincts. We never got a chance to tell you because you took off too quickly but we're looking for somebody to run Miami Dade County." I got $50 a week and gas money and even though we didn't have a chance to win it was very much like the Obama campaign with a big following of people. And with that huge number we basically took over the Democratic Party in Florida. You find people who peeled off of the McGovern campaign all over the country.

RCP: You worked for Jimmy Carter as well.
Bendixen: The national experience I got was in the Jimmy Carter campaign. Starting in 1975, we put together the pre-campaign that led to the Florida Democratic convention straw ballot where Jimmy Carter defeated George Wallace, and convinced the Democratic establishment that he could actually defeat Wallace. And that led to, with some encouragement from us, convincing some people like Paul Udall and Fred Harris and others to leaving Florida to Carter, because of course he had no chance to become president. But this would be a good way to defeat Wallace. But he kind of broke the deal by becoming President.

RCP: How did Bendixen Associates come about?
Bendixen: Well after that I worked in Congress for Bill Lehman (a North Miami Beach Democrat) from 1974 through 1982. And I met Alan Cranston and he asked me to run his Presidential campaign which I did. And even though I'm sure no one remembers anything about Cranston for President, actually it got terrific press in '83, we won a lot of the straw ballots, we defeated Mondale in Wisconsin, I got written up quite a bit, and based on that I opened my Bendixen Associates in 1984 in Washington. We were doing all types of campaigns in Latin America and the United States and at that time Spanish television in America became important. The first network came out, they were looking for people who spoke Spanish and knew politics. I was one of the only people who had some experience in American politics and could talk about it in Spanish. You would see me for a project here and a project there but by 1989 they had grown to the point where they offered me one hell of a deal. It was Univision at the time and they said put your business aside, we don't want any conflicts of interest, and become our full-time political commentator/analyst/correspondent/pollster all-in-one and move to California. And the big deal there was that for the first time Hispanics were going to elect a county commissioner in Los Angeles. I stayed in California for ten years and worked not only the California political scene but the whole Hispanic political scene which was beginning to emerge at that time. The Hispanic political scene was just beginning to emerge at that time. In the ‘80s all it was were the Cubans in Miami but the Hispanic electorate was nothing that anyone would pay any attention to. But in the ‘90s it was blossoming everywhere. And then Pete Wilson, I was in the middle of that.

RCP: He must be your favorite politician.
Bendixen: (laughing) My favorite. He made my career. But was important was that those ten years allowed me in a sense to understand the Hispanic community. I think I understand it very well and I think that's why I'm a good consultant and I give good advice and help people win elections. But the combination of having the political experience of the ‘70s and ‘80s, with the presidential campaigns and consulting work, and then getting heavily involved in the Hispanic community through Univision and Telemundo, it allowed me to become 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 comes from when I left Univision and Telemundo and went back to Miami and reopened my consulting business. One of the first things I started to do was come to Washington in the ‘90s, Tom Daschle helped me a lot, and I gave conference after conference on how the Hispanic vote was growing, how many of them only spoke Spanish, and the Republicans were way ahead. And George W. Bush became President and Bush was stealing that vote from us. And I think my most important contribution to the Democratic Party was alerting them to what was going on and unless they worked it they couldn't count on Hispanic votes in the future. And that became very true because in 2002 and 2004 the Republicans got a substantial percentage of the Hispanic vote with George Bush leading the way and Jeb Bush basically being the architect. That became a very important part of what I did which was a wake-up call to the Democratic Party with the help of Simon Rosenberg and the New Democrat Network which helped me deliver that message and Hillary was there all the way. Daschle would invite me and Hillary was there and she became convinced that I was a valuable consultant and I knew the Hispanic vote and I could make the Democratic Party grow within it and so when she ran for President asked me to be the strategist for her Hispanic effort.

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 over the Hispanic vote and I think he did a good enough job creating a base that made it easier in the general election. To basically get to that 70% goal, we were able to defeat him 2 to 1 in Texas and California, Nevada, everywhere that we went. Why? Because she ran a very aggressive campaign, and she had a very big advantage, being associated with Bill Clinton, and her own personal history with the community. I think we ran a very effective campaign. It didn't get a lot of publicity, it didn't get written up a lot but I think our Spanish-language advertising and our Spanish-language approach was unprecedented; nobody else had ever been as comprehensive in their approach to the Hispanic electorate as we were.

Amandi: And there's no question that the Hispanic support that she had within the primary is what extended her ability to run and go deep into the primaries. On Super Tuesday, she won California because of the massive Hispanic turnout, winning around 65-35. In Texas she was able to win on the base of the Hispanic vote. Barack won the caucus that night but she won the popular vote by 3 or 4 points simply on the basis of the Hispanic vote which allowed her to go on. And in fact, the last primary, in Puerto Rico, where I think she won 75-25.

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. I don't think we ever mentioned his name in all our advertising campaigns, it was always positive. I think that's why we did so well in. We didn't deal with Obama's positives or negatives, we dealt with the fact that the community wanted health insurance, better public schools, a stable economy so they didn't have to worry about an increase in prices or people losing their jobs. It was as simple as that. We just hammered away at that message, that we would go back to the ‘90s where people remembered wonderful economic times, but this time we were going to add health assurance and maybe better public schools and that was very powerful. And with my work in the Democratic party it was natural and the Obama campaign made it very easy for us, they treated us with great respect, we felt welcome from the first day.

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 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 him and get all the undecideds. Not an easy thing We did some focus groups to see what the strategy was and it was clear at that time that the 20 percent we needed to pick up were not sold on Obama as the candidate because they were not sold on the man - they were very much sold on the agenda of the Democratic Party. And so maybe our greatest contribution to the Obama campaign at that point was to convince them in the beginning, in the August, September, early October period - they had to sell the agenda, they had to campaign on health insurance, education, the economy, on Iraq, and that the personal sale of Obama should come at the end after he had been identified with those issues. And they followed that strategy almost to a tee.

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 Hispanics. We can't go there because you're going to lose their support." 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 establish him through the issues.

Bendixen: Especially in the contrasts with McCain. Especially on health and education, and the economy.

Amandi: Trying to gain the undecideds, which were really the opportunity for us to gain votes in the community, there was not a familiarity, there was no history with Obama. Number one they didn't know him, so that lack of familiarity led to a distrust. Because here he was promising all these things, they saw it as rhetoric, who is this guy promising all these things?

Bendixen: The bottom line was they were not really sold on him yet, the 20 percent that we were after, but when you gave them the contrast on how McCain felt on health insurance, how McCain had supported vouchers and Obama was for full funding for public schools, Obama was really for giving tax breaks to the middle class. All that you heard from McCain was ‘protect the rich' and the war was a very strong issue. That allowed us to get from the 50s basically to the low 60s. But then when we did our focus groups in October, we found out that because of the issues now they felt a lot more comfortable with Obama. So we put him on television with a commercial, and if you haven't seen you should look at it. Let's put Obama on television speaking Spanish and that got him from the low 60s to the high 60s. A very powerful commercial, one of the most powerful ever made for Spanish language communications in the United States. If they had reversed that, if they had gone with Obama first, and the issues later I think we would've probably lost ten points and might not have won Florida and maybe not Nevada.

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 among all Hispanic voters in the U.S in March that showed him at about 80% approval. And then among the most difficult of all groups, Cuban Americans, the poll on Obama's Cuban policy, which got written up in the New York Times showed that he was at about 60% approval. So he's done a remarkable job. I can't speak to whether the Hispanic establishment is happy with appointments or political things but at the grassroots, in terms of your average Hispanic, 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 to the younger generation when the true agent of change and the more important group in Miami's Cuban electorate is what we call the Cuban immigrants as opposed to the Cuban exiles. We allow almost 30,000 Cubans to come over almost every year. Since Mariel [The Mariel boatlift] there have been about half a million Cubans arriving 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. And that is driven by the structural change, with regards to Cuban relations, these immigrants since the eighties and the new generations are much more in favor of a negotiation approach to Cuba while the older exiles much more want to stick to confrontation. But what we saw in the last poll, which I think was the most important part, was that even among the older generation Obama has done something remarkable - he's gotten them to rethink their position, and at least are willing to give it a try. They like Obama enough to say, "if this is where you want to go, go for it."

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. Hispanics are more socially conservative than much of the Democratic Party, they rarely vote based on their conservative positions on gay marriage and abortion. There's a quote that says, "I didn't come to America to get an abortion or gay marriage, it doesn't affect our lives." But there is a Hispanic culture that may be different from the American culture at large. The two most important things to Hispanics are the joy of life and commitment to relationships. When you ask many Americans how many immediate family members they have, they'll say 5, being their two parents and three siblings. Hispanics will say thirty with their aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, etc. There's also the idea that Americans prize success and material wealth more than they do.


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

Bendixen: Millions were watching Spanish language television. In 2000, 2001 I was approached by New America to do the same thing in America that I had done in Latin America with multilingual polling. They asked, "Can you do the same thing in America that you did in Latin America with American Koreans, Iranians, Armenians, etc.. My answer was its mission impossible because its 12 different languages and it would cost too much money. And they asked how much and I said $250,000, and they said ‘ok'. And I got that money to set about the job of developing the methodology of asking the same question in twelve different languages to Americans who spoke different languages. And you could measure all groups, interview Haitians in translations that are easy to understand. And it's much more effective. For American Hispanics, for example, they often feel much more comfortable answering questions in their own languages. When using the English language, they're often the most cautious. And so we were the first to conduct 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: The big deal for political consultants who wanted to do this type work was that I was the only one who spoke Spanish. The culture of Latin America is so different. In Venezuela, where I worked for the Christian Democrats, the political advertising was slow action, music, colors, rather than your candidate's positions. You create huge demonstrations. And as dictatorships were falling and democracies were sprouting up, Univision polled almost every election. We had to do door to door. In El Salvador we had to hire three Guatemalan helicopters to get ballots to the voting stations because guerrillas had blocked off all streets. [Bendixen and Associates work is now 80% with American politics and 20% with Latin American politics]

RCP: And a final Question: You are a 1970 graduate of Notre Dame.
Bendixen: Back when we had a football team.

RCP: Has President Obama given you a phone call yet, asking for advice?
Bendixen: No, but I won't be protesting about Notre Dame, I'll be cheering him on.

 

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