Weapons of Clients: Preferences and Voting Choices in a Competitive Clientelistic Setting

Recent studies on voters’ preference in competitive clientelistic settings rely on the crucial assumption that, in the absence of monitoring mechanisms, clients will choose to support candidates that they believe will be the best patrons. Based on ethnographic research in rural Brazil, this paper argues that voters leave their preferred choices aside to support likely winners even when they judge these as corrupt and unreliable patrons. The paper argues that clients’ choice is not a result of threats of coercion, but instead of voters’ concern with improving their bargaining power after the election. Voters in rural Brazil routinely sought to legitimize their post-election requests to politicians. By siding with viable candidates, voters leveraged on traditional narratives of the vote as an aid to elect a politician to affirm their entitlement to seek a politicians’ assistance after the election. Voters’ attempts to improve their post-electoral bargaining power show how the disadvantaged position of voters vis-à-vis politicians shapes their voting choices in a more nuanced way than purely coercive models of vote buying. This paper also illustrates the importance of ethnographic methods in testing crucial assumptions of theoretical models of political science and in generating new theories of political behavior.