Democratic values and perceived performance: Comparing the public with elite donors and local officials

Bright Line Watch
Survey Wave 8
March-April 2019

On whose support does democracy depend? One answer is the public, which may be required to defend “bright line” vio­la­tions of key demo­c­ra­t­ic norms and prin­ci­ples. However, research indicates that political elites often play a key role in pre­serv­ing — or under­min­ing — demo­c­ra­t­ic stability. In this report, we therefore assess the perceived impor­tance of demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples and U.S. per­for­mance on those prin­ci­ples among two key sets of elites, political donors and gov­ern­ment officials, and contrast their views with those of the public.

Our data come from parallel surveys conducted in March/April 2019 by Bright Line Watch. We specif­i­cal­ly contrast results from a public survey conducted among a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sample of Americans assembled by the survey firm YouGov with two novel samples of elites. The first elite sample consists of donors to federal campaigns whose total con­tri­bu­tions are among the top one percent of all con­trib­u­tors in 2016. We iden­ti­fied them using public campaign finance records and recruited them to par­tic­i­pate in our online survey by mail. These respon­dents are highly polit­i­cal­ly engaged and have sub­stan­tial financial resources to devote to politics. They donated a median of $5,400 to federal election campaigns during the 2016 election cycle. Our second elite sample is a set of local public officials who took part in a survey on the CivicPulse survey platform. This group consists of local officials who make public policy at the county, municipal, and township levels. (See Appendix A for further details on how these surveys were conducted.) 

The surveys that each group took included a battery of 27 state­ments artic­u­lat­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic values related to rights and pro­tec­tions for indi­vid­u­als, the quality and fairness of elections, mech­a­nisms of account­abil­i­ty and checks on political office­hold­ers, and norms of political behavior. Our respon­dents rated these items on their impor­tance to democracy and on the degree to which the U.S. currently meets each standard (see Appendix A for the full list). We analyze these responses by group and also dis­ag­gre­gate them to see how attitudes differ depending on respon­dents’ feelings toward President Trump.

Our key findings are as follows:

  • Both campaign donors and local government officials regard almost all the principles on which we surveyed them as more important to democracy than does the public.

  • Local public officials rate U.S. democratic performance higher than does the public across the range of principles on our survey. By contrast, campaign donors rate performance as better on some items — especially related to the protection of individual rights — and worse on others, particularly those related to electoral fairness and civility.

  • Donors are frequently even more polarized by Trump approval than the public on U.S. democratic performance, highlighting the difficulty of forming bipartisan consensus on norm violations among politically influential elites.

  • Local officials have a different view. Perceptions of democratic performance in this group are often similarly divided to the public between those who view President Trump favorably and those who view him unfavorably. However, both those with a favorable and those with an unfavorable view tend to rate democratic performance as better than the public, suggesting that they see less reason for alarm. 

Democratic pri­or­i­ties among the public and elites

We start by con­sid­er­ing the demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­or­i­ties of our respon­dents — their ratings of the impor­tance of each principle to democracy. The figure below shows the per­cent­age of respon­dents in our rep­re­sen­ta­tive sample of the American public who rate each principle as either essential or important, as opposed to unim­por­tant or merely ben­e­fi­cial, to democracy.[1]

More than half of the public sample holds each of the 27 demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples to be important or essential, but some are more widely valued than others. Clean elections are at the top, followed closely by two other values asso­ci­at­ed with electoral fairness — equal voting rights for all citizens, and equal impact of all votes on electoral outcomes. Also near the top are two prin­ci­ples critical for the exercise of indi­vid­ual political liberty — equal political and legal rights for all citizens, and pro­tec­tion of the right to peaceful protest. Finally, two prin­ci­ples critical to the account­abil­i­ty of those who hold high office are highly valued: the inde­pen­dence of the judiciary, and of inves­ti­ga­tions into wrong­do­ing by public officials, from political influence. 

At the bottom of the list are behav­ioral norms asso­ci­at­ed with political civility such as not impugning the patri­o­tism of one’s political adver­saries, seeking com­pro­mise with political opponents, and pro­tec­tion from political violence by private actors. Also near the bottom are the prin­ci­ples that the district bound­aries from which leg­is­la­tors are elected are not biased toward one party, that electoral par­tic­i­pa­tion is high, and that campaign funding is transparent.

The figure below contrasts the impor­tance placed on each of the 27 prin­ci­ples by the public with how those prin­ci­ples are viewed by donors and local officials. Each marker shows the per­cent­age of a given group that rates the indicated item as essential or important to democracy. The items are listed in descend­ing order of their demo­c­ra­t­ic priority among the public. The most note­wor­thy items are those on which a given group’s impor­tance ratings differ sharply from those of the public (the purple markers).[2]

We find that elite campaign donors rate most prin­ci­ples as more important to (or essential for) democracy than the public. For instance, donors rate our two campaign finance-related prin­ci­ples — that large con­tri­bu­tions should not determine policy and that sources of campaign funding should be trans­par­ent — as sub­stan­tial­ly more important than the public does. The pattern is similar for public officials, who also tend to place greater impor­tance on these prin­ci­ples for democracy than the public. They espe­cial­ly value the political neu­tral­i­ty of gov­ern­ment agencies, the pro­tec­tion of free speech, and seeking com­pro­mise with political opponents.[3]

Comparing per­cep­tions of demo­c­ra­t­ic performance

We now consider how eval­u­a­tions of demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance vary between the public and our elite samples of donors and local officials. The markers show the per­cent­age of respon­dents in each group that rate the United States as currently “fully” or “mostly” meeting each demo­c­ra­t­ic standard as opposed to “partly” or “not” ful­fill­ing it. As above, items are listed in descend­ing order of the public’s ratings.

Ratings of per­for­mance show far greater variance, both within groups and across them, than ratings of impor­tance. We first consider donors. Unlike on impor­tance, where our elite samples rate almost every item higher than the public, donors rate U.S. per­for­mance lower than does the public on many items. This finding likely reflects the partisan imbalance in response rates to our donor survey, which yielded 424 Democrats (73%), 126 Republicans (22%), and 29 inde­pen­dents (5%). (We therefore dis­ag­gre­gate donors by Trump approval below.)

Donors rate per­for­mance higher than does the public on openness to all parties, on pro­tec­tion of peaceful protest, of free speech, and from political violence, and on fraud-free elections. But the donors rate per­for­mance as worse than the public on a number of prin­ci­ples related to electoral fairness. These include voter par­tic­i­pa­tion, equality of voting rights and of the impact of all votes, and electoral district bias. Notably, donors also rate U.S. demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance low relative to the public on the trans­paren­cy of campaign finance and on large con­tri­bu­tions not deter­min­ing public policy. Finally, donors rate per­for­mance lower than the public on prin­ci­ples that reflect norms of civility in politics: seeking com­pro­mise, reaching a common under­stand­ing of facts, and acknowl­edg­ing the patri­o­tism of political adversaries.

By contrast, local officials tend to provide higher ratings than the public across the board. They rate U.S. demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance as sig­nif­i­cant­ly higher than the public on 22 of 27 prin­ci­ples. These dif­fer­ences do not cluster around any clear theme, though we note that the largest gap we observe is on whether citizens are able to make their voices heard on important policy issues. Local officials over­whelm­ing­ly believe that citizen voices are heard (perhaps reflect­ing and pro­ject­ing their personal expe­ri­ences), whereas citizens them­selves are less assured. 

Polarization in per­cep­tions of demo­c­ra­t­ic performance 

The analysis of perceived demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance among the public and our samples of donors and local officials may mask important dif­fer­ences, however. Prior Bright Line Watch surveys have demon­strat­ed sub­stan­tial polar­iza­tion in views. We therefore consider the extent of polar­iza­tion in per­for­mance ratings between the public and our elite samples using feelings toward/approval of President Trump to dis­tin­guish people’s political viewpoints. 

We first consider polar­iza­tion between donors and the public in the figure below, which contrasts ratings for Trump approvers and dis­ap­provers among donors and the public, in order of pref­er­ences among Trump approvers in the public.

As the figure indicates, Trump approvers tend to rate U.S. demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance higher than dis­ap­provers in general. This polar­iza­tion is fre­quent­ly magnified among donors. On equal voting rights, for instance, 94% of Trump approver donors believe the U.S. is “fully” or “mostly” meeting the standard of equal voting rights, compared to only 26% of donors who dis­ap­prove of the President. This polar­iza­tion exceeds the already wide gap between Trump approvers and dis­ap­provers (82% and 45%, respec­tive­ly). We observe similar patterns on votes having equal impact, people having equal political/legal rights, leg­isla­tive checks on the executive branch, and the trans­paren­cy of campaign funding. The pattern is not universal, however. Donors who approve of the president rate U.S. democracy worse than their public coun­ter­parts on political par­tic­i­pa­tion and agencies not punishing political opponents. Similarly, donors who dis­ap­prove of the president rate U.S. democracy higher on prin­ci­ples including tol­er­a­tion of protest, allowing parties to compete polit­i­cal­ly, and a lack of inter­fer­ence with the press. 

We found similar results in a conjoint exper­i­ment we conducted on separate samples of donors and the public simul­ta­ne­ous­ly with these surveys. In that exper­i­ment, we asked respon­dents to choose between a series of paired hypo­thet­i­cal can­di­dates in an upcoming election who varied on a series of char­ac­ter­is­tics, including par­ti­san­ship, two policy positions, and their stances on four demo­c­ra­t­ic values (voting rights, inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tions, judicial deference, and com­pro­mise). Similarly to our per­for­mance ratings, the conjoint exper­i­ment revealed partisan polar­iza­tion on the principle of equal access to the ballot, with Republicans favoring laws that restrict access to the franchise and Democrats opposing them, espe­cial­ly among donors. However, our results also showed that donors and regular citizens of both stripes punish vio­la­tions of the other three demo­c­ra­t­ic values we examined, which suggests that prin­ci­ples related to account­abil­i­ty and checks and balances are the “bright lines” that citizens might be most willing to defend. (This finding is con­sis­tent with what we report elsewhere.)

Responses from local officials differ sub­stan­tial­ly from those of donors. We fre­quent­ly see a com­pa­ra­ble divide among officials between Trump sup­port­ers and opponents to the one seen among the public, but with officials in both groups rating per­for­mance higher than their coun­ter­parts in the public (con­sis­tent with the findings reported above for local officials as a whole).

On equal voting rights, for instance, the per­cent­age of local officials who rate the U.S. as “fully” or “mostly” meeting the standard is between 10 and 20 per­cent­age points higher than among the public for both groups. We observe similar patterns on checks on the executive by the judiciary, equal political/legal rights, and a lack of foreign influence. However, excep­tions exist; for some prin­ci­ples like tol­er­a­tion of protest and opinions being heard on policy, even officials who dis­ap­prove of Trump rate per­for­mance as better than the public.


Parallel surveys of the public, elite campaign donors, and local gov­ern­ment officials provide insight into the demo­c­ra­t­ic values within each of these groups as well as the potential, and chal­lenges, to estab­lish­ing consensus among them. All three groups indicate wide­spread belief in the impor­tance of the demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples included in our surveys. Priorities vary across the items, but all 27 are regarded as important or essential by majori­ties of the public and by even higher pro­por­tions of our donor and public official samples. This consensus runs contrary to the familiar populist line that elites hold values that differ from those of “regular” people (Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2013). On demo­c­ra­t­ic values, at least, Americans seem to have similar views to both financial and political elites. 

However, we also find important dif­fer­ences, both across these groups and within them, in per­spec­tives on American democracy. Campaign donors rate U.S. demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance higher than does the public on some items — espe­cial­ly related to the pro­tec­tion of indi­vid­ual rights, such as openness of par­tic­i­pa­tion, pro­tec­tion of free speech and the right to protest, and lack of political violence. Yet these same donor elites rate U.S. demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance lower than the public does on many counts, notably on the insu­la­tion of public policy from the influence of donors them­selves. An exception is that elite donors — Republicans and Democrats alike — are far more likely than the public to regard U.S. elections as free from fraud.

Local officials rate U.S. demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance higher than does the public across the range of prin­ci­ples measured on our survey. It is possible that the responses from these officials reflect their expe­ri­ences at levels of gov­er­nance where the stark polar­iza­tion that has char­ac­ter­ized national politics in recent decades is less pro­nounced (Fallows and Fallows 2018). A less sanguine inter­pre­ta­tion is that the per­for­mance assess­ments of the public officials are char­ac­ter­ized by a com­pla­cen­cy that is not shared by the citizens they represent.

On the whole, our findings do not suggest that a consensus is emerging on vio­la­tions of standards of demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance. More striking than dif­fer­ences across groups — that is, between the public and elites, whether financial or political — are the profound divisions within each group between those who approve and those who dis­ap­prove of President Trump. With few excep­tions, assess­ments of U.S. demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance across the Trumpian divide are fun­da­men­tal­ly at odds. Absent such a consensus, elites may be no more likely than the public to police these violations.

Appendix A: The Bright Line Watch survey, March-April 2019

In March and April of 2019, Bright Line Watch conducted its eighth survey on the state of democracy in the United States. Throughout 2017 and 2018, we had conducted surveys of the general public (as well as academic experts, the results of which we report here). In the March-April wave, for the first time, we also added samples of elite campaign donors and of local officials from around the United States. Details on the Wave 8 survey are provided below:

  • Public: YouGov fielded the public survey from March 12–18, 2019, producing 2,000 complete responses. 

  • Campaign donors: We drew inspiration from Broockman and Malhotra (2018) to recruit a sample of campaign donors to our survey. This sample comes from publicly available Federal Election Commission data on U.S. campaign donors. These data are maintained for research use online in the Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections (DIME). Several of the datasets in this database include individual-level data on the names and addresses of all campaign donors in federal election cycles since 1980. Using data on all campaign contributions in the 2016 election cycle, we identified individuals in the top 1% for total amount donated to federal election campaigns. We then drew a random sample of 20,000 donors from the top 1% by total giving to the party to which they gave the most.[4] We created a letter inviting people to participate in our survey that provided instructions for how to access it online. Specifically, the letter told potential participants that they had been selected at random from publicly available lists of people who participate in democracy, and directed them to a website at which they could follow a link to take the online survey.  Each letter was addressed to each potential participant by name, and included a unique access code that the participant had to enter in order to take the survey after following the link at the website.[5] Partnering with a company that prints and distributes commercial and non-profit mail, we sent the letters to our 20,000 donors at the addresses listed in the dataset. The letters were dropped at the post office on March 15, 2019, and we closed the survey on April 17, 2019. We collected a total of 584 responses, for a response rate of 5.8%.

  • Local officials: We partnered with the CivicPulse survey platform to recruit a sample of local officials, which includes county officials, municipal officials, and township officials. We collected a total of 1,032 complete responses from March 12, 2019 to April 13, 2019. 

All of the samples in Wave 8 responded to batteries of questions about the importance and performance in the United States of our 27 democratic principles. Afterward, they were asked to evaluate the quality of American democracy overall on a 100-point scale.

The data from the surveys are available here. All analyses of the public data from YouGov incor­po­rate survey weights.

Importance and per­for­mance batteries

The foun­da­tion of Bright Line Watch’s surveys is a list of 27 state­ments express­ing a range of demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. Democracy is a mul­ti­di­men­sion­al concept. Our goal is to provide a detailed set of measures of demo­c­ra­t­ic values and of the quality of American democracy. We are also inter­est­ed in the resilience of democracy and the nature of potential threats it faces. Based on the expe­ri­ences of other countries that have expe­ri­enced demo­c­ra­t­ic setbacks, we recognize that demo­c­ra­t­ic erosion is not nec­es­sar­i­ly an across-the-board phe­nom­e­non. Some facets of democracy may be under­mined first while others remain intact, at least initially. The range of prin­ci­ples that we measure allows us to focus attention on variation in specific insti­tu­tions and practices that, in com­bi­na­tion, shape the overall per­for­mance of our democracy.

Bright Line Watch’s Wave 1 survey included 19 state­ments of demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. Based on feedback from respon­dents and con­sul­ta­tion with col­leagues, we expanded that list to 29 state­ments in Wave 2. We then reduced that set to what we intend to be a stable set of 27 state­ments for the Wave 3 through Wave 8 surveys. 17 of those 27 state­ments were included in Wave 1, and all 27 were included in Wave 2.

The full set of state­ments is presented below and grouped the­mat­i­cal­ly for clarity. In the surveys, the prin­ci­ples were not cat­e­go­rized or labeled. Each respon­dent was shown a randomly selected subset of 14 state­ments and asked to first rate the impor­tance of those state­ments and then to rate the per­for­mance of the United States on those dimen­sions.[6]

27 state­ments of demo­c­ra­t­ic principles


  • Elections are conducted, ballots counted, and winners determined without pervasive fraud or manipulation 

  • Citizens have access to information about candidates that is relevant to how they would govern 

  • The geographic boundaries of electoral districts do not systematically advantage any particular political party 

  • Information about the sources of campaign funding is available to the public 

  • Public policy is not determined by large campaign contributions 

  • Elections are free from foreign influence 


  • All adult citizens have equal opportunity to vote 

  • All votes have equal impact on election outcomes 

  • Voter participation in elections is generally high 


  • All adult citizens enjoy the same legal and political rights 

  • Parties and candidates are not barred due to their political beliefs and ideologies 

  • Government protects individuals’ right to engage in unpopular speech or expression 

  • Government protects individuals’ right to engage in peaceful protest 

  • Citizens can make their opinions heard in open debate about policies that are under consideration 


  • Government does not interfere with journalists or news organizations 

  • Government effectively prevents private actors from engaging in politically-motivated violence or intimidation 

  • Government agencies are not used to monitor, attack, or punish political opponents 


  • Government officials are legally sanctioned for misconduct 

  • Government officials do not use public office for private gain 

  • Law enforcement investigations of public officials or their associates are free from political influence or interference 


  • Executive authority cannot be expanded beyond constitutional limits 

  • The legislature is able to effectively limit executive power 

  • The judiciary is able to effectively limit executive power 

  • The elected branches respect judicial independence 


  • Even when there are disagreements about ideology or policy, political leaders generally share a common understanding of relevant facts 

  • Elected officials seek compromise with political opponents 

  • Political competition occurs without criticism of opponents’ loyalty or patriotism 

To measure perceived impor­tance to democracy, the survey asked, “How important are these char­ac­ter­is­tics for demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­ern­ment?” Respondents rated each principle on the following scale:

  • Not relevant. This has no impact on democracy.

  • This enhances democracy, but is not required for democracy.

  • If this is absent, democracy is compromised.

  • A country cannot be considered democratic without this.

To measure perceived demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance, the survey asked, “How well do the following state­ments describe the United States as of today?” Each respon­dent was then presented with the same state­ments they had just rated in terms of their impor­tance to democracy, and offered the following response options:

  • The U.S. does not meet this standard 

  • The U.S. partly meets this standard 

  • The U.S. mostly meets this standard 

  • The U.S. fully meets this standard 

  • Not sure

The order in which state­ments were presented in the battery was ran­dom­ized for each respon­dent so there should be no priming or ordering effects in how they were assessed.

Appendix B: Stability of demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­or­i­ties over time among the public

Appendix C: Comparisons of the public to donors and local officials

The figures below compare the political values of both elite groups, as measured by our battery of 27 demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples, against those of the public. These figures help clearly dif­fer­en­ti­ate the prin­ci­ples on which the respec­tive elite group has mea­sur­ably different demo­c­ra­t­ic values from the public from those where views are sta­tis­ti­cal­ly indistinguishable.

We also contrast assess­ments of U.S. demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance between both of our elite samples and the public below.

Appendix D: Ratings of impor­tance to democracy by Trump approval/favorability

Appendix E: Ratings of U.S. demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance by Trump approval/favorability


Fallows, James and Deborah Fallows. 2018. Our Towns: A 100,000-mile journey into the heard of America. New York: Penguin.

Mudde, Cas, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. 2013. “Exclusionary vs. Inclusionary Populism: Comparing Contemporary Europe and Latin America.” Government and Opposition 48 (2):1–28.



[1] These demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­or­i­ties are largely stable over time (see Appendix B). Among the public, we detect a sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant change in impor­tance on only one item of the 27 (will­ing­ness to seek com­pro­mise with political opponents) from September 2017 to March 2019. 

[2] See Appendix C for graphs that identify which dif­fer­ences in ratings of impor­tance or demo­c­ra­t­ic per­for­mance are sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant between donors or officials and the public.

[3] As we show in Appendix D, there is rel­a­tive­ly little polar­iza­tion among either the public or these elite groups by feelings toward President Trump in the perceived impor­tance of the 27 demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. These findings are con­sis­tent with our past surveys of the public.

[4] We grouped indi­vid­u­als by a unique iden­ti­fi­er included in the DIME dataset, the party to which they donated, their name, and their address. In order to avoid sending multiple letters to a small per­cent­age of indi­vid­u­als who gave to both parties, had multiple addresses listed under the same unique iden­ti­fi­er, or had multiple spellings of their name under the same unique iden­ti­fi­er, our sample includes only indi­vid­u­als who made donations at the same address to one party and are listed under the same name.

[5] Approximately half of the indi­vid­u­als who followed this link were sent to a different, unrelated survey we conducted simul­ta­ne­ous­ly with this one; hence, we cal­cu­lat­ed response rates by dividing the total number of responses by 10,000, rather than 20,000.

[6] Due to time con­straints, respon­dents to the survey of local officials were shown a randomly selected subset of 9 statements.