What to Expect When Presidential Candidates Come to Campus

Ohio State University's deputy chief of police describes how his institution plans for presidential campaign and other political VIP visits.
Published: January 28, 2024

It’s 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, and you have the weekend on your mind. The next thing you know your telephone rings. On the other end is the resident agent in charge for your local U.S. Secret Service office.  After all it is a presidential election year, and that call should not have been unexpected. Most campaigns are fluid in nature, and visits are often planned on short notice. If you are the lead person from your agency, you are in for some very long days of planning.

Colleges, universities, schools and hospitals across the country offer attractive backdrops for presidential campaign visits. The concept and the issues that arise are the same for most of these types of visits. Being prepared with that knowledge will contribute to a successful event.

Event and Protection Details Overlap

Early in a presidential campaign, the candidate may not have Secret Service protection. Usually within four months (120 days) of a general election, those candidates who have been determined to be major presidential and vice presidential candidates (and their spouses) are assigned a U.S. Secret Service protection detail. This process is outlined in Title 18 United States Code § 3056.

Related Articles: Advice on Hosting Presidential Candidates From Those Who’ve Been There

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In planning for a campaign visit, you should expect to be involved in two processes: the event and the protection detail, which overlap. The event will be planned by the campaign staff in collaboration with the Secret Service. The protection detail is the responsibility of the Secret Service, which will seek input from the local law enforcement agency. You will be responsible for crowd management and traffic control.

Usually representatives from the campaign staff and the U.S. Secret Service advance teams will arrive in town around the same time. This may be a week ahead of time, or it could be a couple of days prior to the visit. One of the first things both advance teams will want to do is a walkthrough of the venue.  Sometimes the venue location has not been settled on completely, and the campaign staff may want to look at multiple venues on your campus.  It is not unusual for pre-selected venues to be changed after the campaign staff lead advance team arrives and assesses the venue. You may spend another day or two touring different venues on your campus. A large auditorium is not automatically the type of venue the campaign staff wants. This determination largely depends on the stage of the campaign and the message and backdrop that they want to convey. During the campaign, your location may be one of several different stops in the same city or state on the same day.

The Secret Service Will Rely On You

The U.S. Secret Service subscribes to the counterpart philosophy and will rely on assistance from local law enforcement in planning and carrying out their protection detail. When the advance team of Secret Service agents arrives in town, they will hold a briefing with the host university, city, state and local law enforcement, as well as other public safety officials. The briefing will be conducted by the lead advance agent (Secret Service) for the visit and includes introductions, dissemination of intelligence information and discussion of the overall security operation. The local law enforcement jurisdiction should identify a counterpart as a liaison for the lead advance agent.

Once the venue is selected, the Secret Service advance team will want to start their planning process. A representative from your agency will be asked to assist with the planning. This person should be assigned as the counterpart to the Secret Service site leader. The site leader will be the Secret Service agent in charge of the site (venue). The planning will initially start with a walk through of the venue with representatives from the campaign staff, the host institution’s government relations and possibly a student organization representative.  One problem often encountered at this point is too many people wanting to get involved in the process. Be prepared to do multiple walkthroughs with different groups. This is important because plans change quickly.

Checkpoints, Security Perimeters Are Established

After the walkthrough, in collaboration with the Secret Service, the campaign staff will plan the setup of the venue. Once the set up configuration is agreed upon, the Secret Service will continue their planning. This includes conducting site surveys that assess staffing needs and equipment.  Checkpoints and security perimeters will be established, and evacuation routes will be planned.  A command post and other important locations will be identified. It is not unusual for the military and other federal agencies to be involved in the security operation, especially if your campaign visit involves a standing president running for re-election. It should be noted that the Secret Service will have a command post that will include representatives from the other agencies involved.

Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series