Secret Service Protection for Presidential Candidates

When and How the Government Protects White House Hopefuls

A secret service agent wears an earpiece as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) speaks
Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The U.S. government is required by law to provide Secret Service protection to the president and vice president and their families as well as presidential and vice presidential nominees. But it also is expected to provide protection to some candidates during the primary process depending on certain factors.

How does the government decide which candidates to protect and when?

Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about Secret Service protection for candidates, and details about Secret Service protection in the 2012 presidential contest.

Does the Secret Service Protect All Presidential Candidates?

No. The Secret Service protects only "major" presidential candidates and only those who request coverage.

The Secretary of Homeland Security determines which presidential candidates are considered major after consultation with an advisory committee, according to the agency.

Major presidential candidates can decline Secret Service Protection.

Who Else Decides Which Candidates Get Secret Service Protection?

The Homeland Security director makes his determination on which candidates get Secret Service protection in consultation with an advisory panel that includes the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives; the House minority whip; the Senate majority and minority leaders; and an additional member chosen by the committee itself.

What Are the Criteria for Deciding Who Gets Secret Service Protection?

Major candidates are those that have considerable prominence among the public and have raised substantial money for their presidential campaigns.

Specifically, primary candidates become eligible for Secret Service protection, according to the Congressional Research Service, if they:

  • are publicly declared candidates;
  • are actively campaigning nationally and are contesting at least 10 state primaries;
  • are pursuing the nomination of a qualified party, one whose presidential candidate received at least 10 percent of the popular vote in the prior election;
  • are qualified for public matching funds of at least $100,000, and have raised at least $2 million in additional contributions;
  • have received by April 1 of the election year an average of 5 percent in individual candidate preferences in the most recent national opinion polls by ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN, or have received at least 10 percent of the votes cast for all candidates in two same-day or consecutive primaries or caucuses.

When Do Presidential Candidates Get Secret Service Protection?

Presidential and vice presidential nominees and their spouses are to receive Secret Service protection within 120 days of a general presidential election under the Title 18, Section 3056 of the United States Code.

In modern history, however, major candidates receive Secret Service protection well before that time frame. In 2012, major Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum received Secret Service protection early in the primary season.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, was the first to get Secret Service protection. He received it on Feb. 1, 2012, before more of the states held their primaries and caucuses.

Santorum, a former U.S. senator, received coverage on Feb. 29, 2012, according to published reports that cited federal officials with knowledge of the plan. And Gingrich, a former House speaker, got Secret Service on March 7, 2012.

Ron Paul, the Republican presidential hopeful popular among libertarians, declined Secret Service protection. The Texas congressman described Secret Service protection as a form of welfare.

"You know, you’re having the taxpayers pay to take care of somebody. I’m an ordinary citizen. I would think I should pay for my own protection. And it costs, I think, more than $50,000 a day to protect those individuals. That’s a lot of money," Paul said.

Cost of Secret Service Protection

The Secret Service was expected to spend about $113.4 million protecting the 2012 presidential candidates, an increase of about $1.4 million over the 2008 cost of $112 million, according to published reports.

Secret Service protection for the 2004 presidential candidates cost $74 million. Coverage for the 2000 candidates ran the agency about $54 million, according to published reports.

Secret Service Protection History

Congress passed a law authorizing Secret Service protection for presidential candidates for the first time following the 1968 assassination of U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, who was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.