How Secret Service Agents Are Allotted

And why some candidates prefer not to have them around.

John Kerry now enjoys the perks of Secret Service protection, starting with a phalanx of agents standing watch over his Boston home. At what point during the presidential race do candidates qualify for Secret Service protection, and who decides when and if they merit the earpiece-wearing guards?

Only viable, moneyed contenders need apply, so Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton will likely have to watch their own backs during this election cycle. A candidate must first request protection from the Secret Service, a move that some politicians hesitate to make because it cramps their style. John McCain, for example, never asked for a security detail during his 2000 presidential run, fearing that black-suited goons would discourage him from pressing palms with plain folks and making impromptu campaign stops. And in 1992, Ross Perot delighted in pointing out that he hadn’t enlisted the Secret Service’s aid, half-jokingly telling supporters that he didn’t need any bodyguards because “everybody loves me.”

Once a request is filed, the Secret Service then reviews the candidate’s financial and electoral status to see whether he or she qualifies. The guidelines stipulate that, in order to receive protection, a candidate must enjoy “national prominence,” receive 10 percent or more of the vote in two consecutive primaries or caucuses, and qualify for federal matching funds in excess of $100,000. In lieu of the matching funds criteria, a candidate can also qualify by having raised more than $2 million in contributions. Lastly, the candidate must be running for a party that received at least 10 percent of the popular vote in the previous election, which disqualifies the likes of Libertarian front-runners Michael Barnarik and Gary Nolan. (As a result, it’s not clear that Perot would even have been eligible for protection in ‘92.) The rules change a bit after April 1, when candidates can qualify for protection by virtue of having received 10 percent of his or her party’s committed delegates.

If the criteria are met, the final decision on whether to grant Secret Service protection lies with a five-member committee composed of the Senate majority and minority leaders, the speaker of the House, the House minority leader, and a fifth participant selected by the other four. Historically, that fifth member was often the secretary of the treasury, as the Secret Service was under the aegis of the Treasury Department. But the Secret Service is now part of the Department of Homeland Security, and the identity of the fifth member is a bit tougher to divine. Explainer made inquiries with the Secret Service and with all four Congressional committee members, but did not receive an answer by press time as to who rounds out the body.

Bonus Explainer: The Secret Service’s role in protecting presidential candidates was inspired by the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968. In response, Congress quickly passed Public Law 90-331, which added candidates to the list of those deserving around-the-clock security. The law also stipulated that presidential widows should continue to receive Secret Service protection until death, or remarriage.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Tom Mazur of the U.S. Secret Service.