Advisers to Mr. McAuliffe note that his contest with Mr. Youngkin tightened at the end of the summer, just as Mr. Biden’s approval rating began to fall, as the president’s promise of a return to normalcy faltered in the face of the Delta variant, chaos on the southern border and the tumultuous withdrawal from Afghanistan.
But they see hopeful signs in the fact that Mr. McAuliffe’s support remains higher than Mr. Biden’s approval rating, which hovers in the low to mid-40s — lower than that of any president than Mr. Trump at this early stage.
Mr. Biden’s declining approval ratings among core Democratic constituencies, including young, Latino and Black voters, could inhibit turnout efforts for Mr. McAuliffe, complicating his path to victory in a race that could hinge on which candidate best mobilizes his base.
Swing voters in the suburbs have gotten over their early excitement about replacing Mr. Trump, said Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster who has run focus groups about the Virginia contest. While Mr. Biden’s victory at first inspired “ginormous relief,” she said, “Now, there’s a realization like, Oh, yeah, Biden’s not perfect, and things aren’t feeling enormously better.”
Neither Mr. McAuliffe nor Mr. Youngkin has mentioned Mr. Biden in his ads, according to AdImpact, which tracks campaign commercials, underscoring how little he motivates voters in either party — a striking change after many years in which sitting presidents routinely played starring roles in advertisements by candidates in both parties.
In the closing weeks of the race, Mr. McAuliffe, who served a term as governor from 2014 to 2018 but was barred from a second consecutive term by Virginia law, has tried to put some daylight between his campaign and Mr. Biden’s administration. Though he never directly criticizes the president, Mr. McAuliffe has repeatedly highlighted the political risk posed by congressional inaction on the president’s legislative agenda. In private conversations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the White House, allies of Mr. McAuliffe say he has argued that the souring national environment is hurting his chances.
“We are facing a lot of headwinds from Washington,” Mr. McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said during a virtual call with supporters this month. “The president is unpopular today, unfortunately, here in Virginia, so we have got to plow through.”
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