Michael Cooper’s New York Times article on how John McCain is trying to “recapture” the “vigor” of his last campaign nicely encapsulates the congenital unwillingness of the political press to cover issues. I’m not nearly so naive as to think that issues and public opinion of the issues is determinative in electoral politics, but in the case of McCain’s waxing and waning fortunes, that’s clearly what’s happening. Back in 2000, McCain’s ultra-hawkish national security views were low-salience and moderately popular, and the process issues on which he has a lot of appeal to moderates were high-salience.
Today, the relative salience of these issues has flipped and McCain’s national security views have become very unpopular among moderates and independents. Meanwhile, McCain was never well-liked by the conservative base. The “vigor” of his previous campaign derived from the fact that his political profile at the time was popular with many independents and moderate Republicans, not primarily the reverse.