Sergio Bendixen, the first Hispanic to run a U.S. presidential campaign who later pioneered public-opinion polling among Latinos, died late Friday in Miami. He was 68.
No cause of death was immediately available. Bendixen had been suffering from a bad cold in recent days, according to his friend and business partner, Fernand Amandi. The two ran the Coconut Grove-based Bendixen & Amandi International polling firm, though Bendixen was semi-retired.
“Sergio led the way in capturing the opinions of and understanding how Hispanics in America thought and felt about the most important issues in our time,” Amandi said. “He was largely responsible for giving Hispanic America a voice.”
Bendixen not only focused on polling Hispanics: He also chose to survey them in Spanish, if they were more comfortable in that language, an industry innovation now considered standard in multilingual polling. He later expanded his work to other ethnic groups and worked for political candidates internationally, especially in Latin America.
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His best friend of 40 years, Mike Abrams, called him “the single greatest political mind I’ve ever met,” and said that all of Bendixen’s grandest political plans started humbly — sketched out on a napkin over lunch.
“He could be a little Machiavellian to his political foes, but his loyalty and compassion for friends far outweighed any of that,” he said.
Bendixen’s polling work came after a fast rise in the world of political consulting. In 1984, Bendixen was the national campaign manager for Democratic presidential hopeful Alan Cranston of California. He also helped run Bruce Babbitt’s 1988 presidential campaign.
Bendixen got his start in politics campaigning for George McGovern for president in 1972. His next steps were with North Miami Beach Democrat Bill Lehman in 1974, first as a Miami district representative for the congressman then as an executive assistant in Washington. But it was his work organizing conservative Dade County Democrats for Jimmy Carter in 1976 that landed Bendixen on the national political map: His efforts were credited as key to Carter’s improbable victory.
After falling out with Carter, Bendixen and Abrams led the 1980 Draft Kennedy movement to try to unseat Carter with Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy — a move Bendixen later considered his biggest political mistake, Amandi said, because he thought it ultimately helped Republican Ronald Reagan defeat Carter.
Bendixen then moved to Washington and delved into polling, where he chronicled perhaps the most significant demographic change in Miami politics: the emergence of Cuban-American Republicans. Previously, Cuban Americans had mostly identified as Democrats.
“The danger is that we’ll get to the point where a Cuban can’t be elected to anything in Dade unless he’s Republican,” Bendixen, a lifelong Democrat, warned in 1983. By the late 1980s, Cuban-American candidates began taking over seats in the Florida Legislature — and eventually in Congress — for the GOP.
Two years ago, Bendixen’s firm did what for years had been unthinkable: conduct a poll in Cuba — secretly, for Univision, Fusion and The Washington Post — to gauge the popularity of then-President Barack Obama’s new U.S. opening toward the island. It was the first independent poll in Cuba since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.
Bendixen knew polling in communist countries was fraught: He and several other American pollsters forecast an overwhelming victory in Nicaragua’s 1990 election for the Marxist Sandinistas — who ended up losing by 14 percentage points.
Bendixen, who eventually returned to Miami, became well-known on Spanish-language television, where he delivered results from his surveys and explained U.S. politics to Latinos. Over his professional life, he worked for all the big national Hispanic networks: Spanish International Network (SIN), Univision, CNN en Español, and Telemundo.
He became “the go-to guy” for polling the Hispanic community, said Cecilia Muñoz, a longtime immigration advocate and former director of the Domestic Policy Council in the Obama White House. She said his forceful push to include Latinos in the political process changed the country.
“Before him, we weren’t visible in the political community,” she said. “He gave us a voice.”
In 2008, Bendixen’s firm produced Spanish-language ads for Obama that targeted diverse nationalities, rather than treating Hispanics as a homogenous bloc.
But despite his national reach, Bendixen stayed involved in local campaigns throughout the years, including for issues he cared about, such as the creation of The Children’s Trust.
“People say there are six degrees of Kevin Bacon,” Amandi said. “Well, there is one degree of Sergio Bendixen.”
David Lawrence Jr., the founding chair of The Children’s Trust and former publisher of the Miami Herald, said he gives Bendixen “an extraordinary lot” of the credit for the trust’s creation.
“Underpinning the success was Sergio’s political savvy, his wisdom, his eagerness to give to the community, and just the right kind of decisiveness and toughness,” Lawrence said.
Although he never married or had children, Abrams said his best friend was fond of all the young people in his life, especially his nieces and nephews. He hired Abrams’ son, David, when he left rehab and continued to be a personal and professional mentor until David’s death. After his passing, Bendixen showed up at Abrams’ house every day for weeks to care for his friend.
“He was one of those full personalities that are so rare,” Abrams said. “If you are their friend, you feel lucky and fortunate.”
Born in Peru, Bendixen immigrated to the U.S. at age 12, Amandi said. Bendixen went to Christopher Columbus High School and graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1970 with a degree in chemical engineering, according to his biography. He never worked as an engineer.
In his semi-retirement, Amandi said, Bendixen still closely followed politics. But he also made time for his other passions: following baseball’s Detroit Tigers; Alianza Lima, a Peruvian soccer club; and the Peruvian national soccer team, which Bendixen hoped would return to World Cup form.
Bendixen is survived by his brothers, Arthur Bendixen and Robert Bendixen.
A memorial service will be held Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the University of Miami’s Storer Auditorium, 5250 University Dr., Coral Gables.