(Revise and resubmit at Latin American Politics and Society)
Does party organization still matter? Much of the party literature suggests that politicians, who can use substitutes like mass media to win votes, lack incentives to invest in party organization. Yet party organization remains an electoral asset, especially at lower levels of government. Evidence from Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT) indicates that party elites invest in organization when they prioritize lower-level elections, and that this investment delivers electoral returns. In the mid-2000s, the PT strengthened its support, across all levels of government, in the clientelistic, conservative Northeast. Drawing from underutilized data on party offices, this article shows that organizational expansion contributed substantially to the PT's electoral advances in the Northeast. While President Lula da Silva’s (PT) 2006 electoral spike in the Northeast mainly resulted from expanded conditional cash transfers, the PT’s improvement at lower levels followed from top-down organization-building. The PT national leadership deliberately expanded the party’s local infrastructure to deliver electoral gains.
Well-financed opposition parties can exert their organizational strength to undercut the territorial advantages of political machines and clientele networks. In the 2000s, leftist parties in Brazil’s Northeast region (NE) brought conservative rule to an abrupt, dramatic end. The Workers’ Party (PT) led this shift, not only garnering regional majorities in presidential elections, but also winning multiple governorships and increasing its share of federal and state legislative seats in the region. In contrast to arguments attributing recent electoral shifts in the NE to civil society, aggregate growth, and conditional cash transfers, we argue that the territorial expansion of the PT organization played a central role. A spike in party finances during the early 2000s enabled the PT, for the first time, to establish party offices in Northeastern municipalities from the top down. Drawing from underutilized data and sources, we show that the PT leadership broke conservatives’ monopoly on rural territory in the NE by strategically targeting hundreds of conservative-dominated municipalities and investing resources to stimulate the formation of local offices. The study demonstrates that this top-down territorial targeting produced considerable electoral gains for PT candidates across federal and state races.