Trading bullhorns for blog posts

When Cheryl Sullenger and her colleagues at the anti-abortion-rights organization Operation Rescue wanted to put out a newsletter opposing Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination, no one needed to poke painstakingly at the keys on a typewriter. No one had to spend money at the copy store or hours on end stuffing envelopes and licking stamps, as Sullenger did for protests she led in the 1980s. Instead, the Operation Rescue team blasted its disapproval simply by blogging on its website and forwarding the link to hundreds of members on an e-mail list, all within a matter of minutes, Sullenger said.

Operation Rescue is just one of the many interest groups that gear up for the fights that surround a Supreme Court nomination, but the days of marching picket lines and blaring bullhorns are becoming a thing of the past. Instead, many of these organizations are voicing their opinions and reaching the public through tweets, blogs and status updates.

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For example, Family Research Council Action, the conservative Family Research Council’s legislative-action arm, is challenging Kagan’s nomination in a drastically different manner from what it has done with past nominees, Vice President Tom McClusky said.

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated in 1993, the organization relied on massive calling campaigns to oppose her seating, McClusky noted. Then when John Roberts was nominated in 2005 and Samuel Alito in 2006, organization leaders went to churches to give endorsement addresses, which were recorded and broadcast via satellite on TV.

For Kagan’s nomination, the group will host webcasts during her confirmation hearings, which are scheduled to begin Monday. The webcasts will feature legal experts explaining why she is unfit to serve on the court, McClusky said. And if people visiting the organization’s website want to share their objections to the nomination with their senators, they need to do little more than type their ZIP code above a pre-written letter and hit Enter.

“Things are just totally different today,” said McClusky, who writes many of the organization’s daily blogs railing against Kagan’s nomination. “We can inundate our members with information.”

Marge Baker, executive vice president of the left-leaning People for the American Way, similarly noted how radically the means of engaging in Supreme Court nomination debates have transformed over the years.

“There are so many more vehicles for communication,” Baker said, pointing to the ever-expanding variety of online avenues her group is taking to spread its message supportive of Kagan. These include the Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Delicious and 200-plus other icons people can click to bookmark or share with their social networks a video endorsement of Kagan posted on the website of People for the American Way’s sister organization, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Matthew Faraci, the communications and marketing vice president at Americans United for Life (AUL), a group staunchly against Kagan, said his organization is doing things it has never tried before — not even last year when decrying Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination.

“This is totally new, totally different,” Faraci said of the group’s “Kagan File.” It consists of daily memos, posted on AUL’s website and e-mailed to members, outlining research findings that show why Kagan shouldn’t be confirmed, he said.

“We’re reaching more people with more information than ever,” Faraci said.

Groups like Faraci’s represent the next step in the evolution of Supreme Court nomination debates, said Stephen Wermiel, a law professor at American University whose specializations include the Supreme Court.

Groups can employ these technologically driven strategies at a sliver of what older tactics cost — in both time and money, he said. As a result, more people than ever can get involved and make themselves heard, Wermiel said.

Michael T. Heaney, a University of Michigan political science professor whose research focuses on how interest groups affect the political process, sees something similar to what Wermiel described.

Long-established organizations aren’t the only ones using the Internet in Supreme Court nomination discussions, Heaney said. Just about anyone wanting to reach a broad audience can put his or her thoughts at the fingertips of millions by posting them on the Web, he said.

In the end, increased communication abilities are making the competition of ideas within a Supreme Court nomination debate more vigorous than ever, People for the American Way’s Baker said.

“There is so much more information coming at people,” she said. More than ever, organizations “need to be smart about how they package and communicate their ideas if they want them to be heard” among all the other voices, she said. Text and video materials need to be shorter and crisper than before to capture and retain the attention of people practically drowning in information, Baker said.

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And as for the future of Supreme Court nomination fights?

“The ways we use communications technologies are becoming easier and cheaper every year,” Heaney said. Accordingly, we can only expect a growing number of organizations trying to spread their views about nominees as well and a wider variety of conduits through which they’ll transmit those messages, he said.

“It’s going to keep expanding,” Heaney said.