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President Biden Stumps for Terry McAuliffe
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President Biden Stumps for Terry McAuliffe

The Democratic gubernatorial nominee makes a campaign stop with President Joe Biden, whose approval ratings have tumbled recently.

ARLINGTON, Virginia—President Joe Biden joined Virginia gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe on the campaign trail Tuesday evening in a final effort to boost Democratic voter enthusiasm ahead of Election Day. “Terry’s opponent has made all these private pledges of loyalty to Donald Trump, but what’s really interesting to me — he won’t stand next to Donald Trump,” Biden said Tuesday of GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin, a former co-CEO of the Carlyle group who has never run for office.

“Is there a problem with Trump being here? Is [Youngkin] embarrassed? Look who’s been here for Terry!” the president said before reminding voters that first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and former President Barack Obama have all stumped for McAuliffe in recent weeks.

Youngkin, on the other hand, has spent the final stretch of the race traversing the state alone. “He has said from day one that he’s not going to have surrogates, which is obviously a stark contrast from McAuliffe, who’s calling in the cavalry,” said Maddie Anderson, a regional press secretary for the Republican Governors Association, who added that the GOP candidate is “his own best messenger.”

Rally attendees say that McAuliffe’s close relationships with high-profile candidates bodes well for his election prospects. “He’s got popular high-profile Democrats who support him, so why not bring them out, show them off,” said one rally attendee named Evan, who lives in Arlington. “I think it also just speaks to the quality of Terry McAuliffe as a candidate that he can bring the president of the United States out on a cold Tuesday night.”

But “popular” isn’t a word most pollsters would use to describe Biden at this point in the president’s term. High inflation, skyrocketing gas prices, and the president’s gridlocked domestic policy agenda have kept Biden’s approval ratings in the low 40s for weeks now. As of Tuesday, Biden’s approval rating stood at just 43.4 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average

Even McAuliffe, who also served as governor from 2014-18, has acknowledged this trend. Just three weeks ago, he admitted that Biden’s sinking approval ratings may be hampering him. “We are facing a lot of headwinds from Washington,” McAuliffe said during a private virtual teleconference on October 5. “As you know, the president is unpopular today, unfortunately, here in Virginia, so we’ve got to plow through.”

The damage shows: Over the past month, Youngkin has all but erased the steady polling lead McAuliffe has held for most of the race. Over the past week, three new polls from Monmouth University, USA Today/Suffolk, and the GOP firm Cygnal show that the race is a tie.

That’s not to say Biden’s sinking popularity presents an insurmountable obstacle for McAuliffe. “To be fair, at this time in 2013, Obama’s approvals were in about that same range and McAuliffe still ended up pulling it out,” said J. Miles Coleman, an elections analyst at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Gallup polling shows that in October 2013, Obama’s approval rating stood at just 43 percent as he was dealing with the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act..

Where McAuliffe really needs to pick up the slack is with independent voters. Last week’s Monmouth poll shows that Youngkin is carrying independents by 9 points. “If you look at the exit polls from 2013, that’s exactly the margin he lost independents by in 2013,” Coleman said. “McAuliffe can’t slip much further.” That Youngkin is leading independents by 9 points is striking considering McAuliffe was carrying independents by the same exact margin in a September Monmouth poll.

Many election analysts say that Youngkin’s growing popularity with independents is at least in part thanks to the focus he has put on comments by McAuliffe regarding K-12 education. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” McAuliffe said during a debate last month.

Last week, Youngkin sought to capitalize on this incident by releasing an ad featuring Fairfax County mother Laura Murphy, who expressed frustration that McAuliffe vetoed a bill while governor that would have allowed parents to opt their children of sexually explicit reading material like Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved. 

During Tuesday’s campaign event, McAuliffe’s campaign gave reporters free copies of Beloved, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, along with pamphlets that said Youngkin will “ban books” in Virginia schools. “Folks, we will not allow Youngkin to bring his hate and his chaos in our Virginia schools, and we will never let our children be used as political pawns,” McAuliffe told the crowd Tuesday evening. 

With just a few days left in the race, all eyes are on Virginia as a bellwether ahead of the 2022 midterms. “They’re getting a lot of pressure from the White House, from national Democrats in general because if [McAuliffe] loses this race in a state that Biden won by ten points just one year ago, that’s a major warning sign for Democrats,” Anderson said.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.