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Responsiveness in democratic accountability: Lessons from Donald Trump’s campaign

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This is a series on the process of democratic accountability as defined by its three main principles: answerability, responsiveness and enforceability. This second article in this series examines two contrasting sources of campaign financing used in the election campaign of US President Donald Trump: self-funding and crowdfunding. The principle of responsiveness, which ensures that policies reflect the views of citizens, is more likely to be fulfilled through crowdfunding.

Disclaimer: Views expressed in this commentary are those of the staff member. This commentary is independent of specific national or political interests. Views expressed do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.


To reach out to citizens during election campaigns, some political candidates may feel the need to complement public funding and smaller supporter contributions with large sums of money from private donors. If elected to public office, politicians might face a trade-off between making laws that favour narrow private interests or those of the wider public, and risk undermining the principle of responsiveness in democratic accountability.[1]

Accountability can be defined as an obligation to account for one’s activities, accept responsibility and disclose and justify results. When truly democratic, it is guided by the principles of answerability, responsiveness and enforceability. Answerability presupposes that citizens’ right to information is fulfilled, while enforceability reviews the performance of elected and unelected officials and imposes consequences for (non)fulfilment of their duties. Responsiveness is particularly important in election campaigns because it aims to incorporate the demands of the public in policymaking.[2] Election campaigns are the ideal arena for political candidates to promise their constituents responsive policymaking but are, at the same time, vulnerable to undue influence by private interests.

Addressing popular concerns about responsiveness in democratic accountability, some political candidates attempt to win back trust by balancing the nexus between campaign outreach, law compliance and democratic accountability in campaign financing. While using his 2016 presidential campaign to point out that the foreign donations received by the non-profit Clinton Foundation might entail conflict of interest for his opponent Hillary Clinton,[3][4] US President Donald Trump employed unconventional financing strategies to prove his independence from donors and loyalty to the public.

In an effort to work ‘for the people of the US’,[5] Trump self-funded 66 million USD out of the total 339 million USD campaign budget using resources from his own private companies.[6]

Trump’s promises lacked credibility since self-funding does not guarantee that a candidate will deliver on their campaign promises. On the contrary, political candidates that rely on their own financial resources risk alienating themselves from the rest of their party and therefore put their relationship with party supporters at risk.[7] In addition, hidden links of responsibilities may incentivise the candidate to operate in favour of their own wealth and those actors that help the candidate to accumulate it. Recently, Trump was accused of conflict of interest when accepting money from foreign governments,[8] suggesting that he, in spite of innovative funding strategies, failed to keep promises to separate public and private interest.

In addition to self-funding, Trump’s campaign finances were also characterised by the 69 per cent of contributions that were smaller than 200 USD, compared to Clinton’s 22 per cent.[9] In fact, Trump’s share of small contributions even beat Barack Obama, who pioneered so-called crowdfunding in the run-ups for the 2008 elections.[10]

Crowdfunding, or online fundraising, is an excellent way to stimulate responsive policymaking during an election campaign. A political campaign that is largely funded by small sums from average citizens may shift the sense of responsiveness back to the supporters and encourage individual funders to claim responsiveness throughout the rest of the policy cycle—especially if conducted through online tools that facilitate engagement on an everyday basis. Citizens who have supported a political campaign with their own money have greater incentives to claim responsiveness, while politicians that spend more time collecting funds from average supporters than wealthy donors are more likely to understand and adopt the citizens’ worldviews.[11] Therefore, the relationship that is established between a candidate and their constituents during an election campaign has the potential to foster an exchange of ideas and services even after the candidate is elected to office.

Trump’s unconventional campaign appealed to voters who were disillusioned with the role of money in politics, which they feared led to a lack of responsiveness in democratic accountability. Even though self-funding does not tend to pave the way for policymaking that is responsive to the will of the people, crowdfunding indeed has the potential to do so. To live up to his promises, Trump has the opportunity to increase responsiveness by offering the people who donated money to his campaign a stake in his presidency.

While political finance regulations lay the groundwork for enhanced integrity during election campaigns, political candidates themselves can offer innovative, demand-led means of including their citizens in campaign financing to strengthen responsiveness. Recognising that they might fail to do so, the next article in this series explores how citizens can sanction leaders that do not fulfil the requirements of responsiveness. Democratic Accountability in Service Delivery provides a guide for assessing this principle and encourages anyone to claim democratic accountability wherever they are.



Answerability in democratic accountability (1st article)

Enforceability in democratic accountability​ (3rd article)


Learn more:

Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns: A Handbook on Political Finance

Policy Brief on Money in Politics

Political Finance Database

Democratic Accountability in Service Delivery: A Practical Guide to Identify Improvements through Assessment

United States Federal Election Commission



[1] International IDEA, Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns (Stockholm: International IDEA, 2014).
[2] International IDEA, Democratic Accountability in Service Delivery (Stockholm: International IDEA, 2014).
[3] Kamisar, B., ‘Trump Hits ’Play-to-Play’ Clinton in New Ad’, 12 October 2016, <>, accessed 17 April 2017.
[4] Greenberg, J., ‘Fact-checking donations to the Clinton Foundation’, 7 July 2016, <>, accessed 24 July 2017.
[5] Trump, D, (@realDonaldTrump), ‘By self-funding my campaign, I am not controlled by my donors, special interests or lobbyists. I am only working for the people of the U.S.!’, 5 September 2015, 14.50 CET, Accessed 5 April 2017.
[6] Fortune, ‘Donald Trump’s Campaign Spending’, 9 December 2016, <>, accessed 6 July 2017.
[7] International IDEA, Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns.
[8] Davis, A., ‘D.C. and Maryland sue President Trump, alleging breach of constitutional oath’, 12 June 2017, <>, accessed 6 July 2017. 
[9] The Campaign Finance Institute, ‘President Trump, with RNC Help, Raised More Small Donor Money than President Obama; As Much As Clinton and Sanders Combined’, 19 February 2017,  <>, accessed 11 July 2017.
[10] Vargas, J., ‘Obama Raised Half a Billion Online’, 20 November 2008, <>, Accessed 17 April 2017.
[11] Stein, J., ‘What Donald Trump gets wrong about money in politics’, 25 March 2016, <>, Accessed 17 April 2017.


About the authors

Aida Zekic
Former Research Assistant for Democracy and Development, International IDEA
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