Why Is the Secret Service Still Protecting Newt Gingrich?

How the government decides whether a candidate needs security.

Newt Gingrich and his Secret Service.
Newt Gingrich and his Secret Service

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

A reporter for the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s school newspaper said he was temporarily restrained by Secret Service agents on Monday, after he tried to ask an awkward question of extreme-long-shot presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. The federal government is paying tens of thousands of dollars per day to protect a candidate who won two primaries so far and admits that he can only become the GOP nominee if the convention falls into disarray. Why is the Secret Service still guarding Newt?

Because he hasn’t yet ended (or “suspended“) his campaign. The Secret Service assigns a detail to a presidential candidate when that candidate asks for protection, and the congressional leadership from both parties gives the go-ahead. The service stops protecting that candidate only when he ends his campaign.

This intense security for also-rans dates back to 1968, when Robert Kennedy walked off the stage at the Ambassador Hotel and was shot by Sirhan Sirhan. Congress amended the Secret Service Protection Law, offering men in dark suits and sunglasses to every “major” candidate for president. To get a security detail, a campaign takes its case to a bipartisan advisory committee in Congress, comprising the majority and minority leaders of the Senate, and the speaker and minority leader of the House.

The members of the committee don’t talk about how these deliberations work, but a Congressional Research Service report published in 2000 revealed the guidelines used in every should-we-protect-or-not discussion. According to that report, the man who has earned protection, according to CRS, must be a publicly declared candidate who is actively campaigning on the national level and contesting at least 10 state primaries. He or she must also be pursuing the nomination of an established political party (i.e., one whose candidate received at least 10 percent of the popular vote in the prior election), and needs to have raised at least $2 million in contributions. Finally, the candidate should have at least a modest presence in the polls: An average of at least 5 percent support in the most recent national surveys by ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN. (In lieu of the poll numbers, a candidate can also have received at least 10 percent of the votes cast in two same-day or consecutive primaries or caucuses.)

Gingrich fit all the committee’s requirements in February, and on March 6, the Department of Homeland Security* assigned him a detail. It doesn’t matter that his poll numbers and relevance plummeted soon after. The advisory board does not regularly meet to reassess whether the candidates still need protection, and the Homeland Security secretary has never taken away a candidate’s detail before that candidate dropped out of the race. Media embeds have fled the Gingrich campaign on the say-so of their private-sector bosses. The government doesn’t move so quickly.

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Explainer thanks Memet Walker of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

*Correction, April 18, 2012: This article originally stated that the Treasure Department assigned Gingrich a detail. It is the Department of Homeland Security that is in charge of the Secret Service.