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‘Early spring is on the way!’: Groundhog Day in the groundhog year of American politics

Pennsylvania celebrates the traditional weather festival, associated with the idea of annoying repetition, at the beginning of a campaign in which a repeat of the Biden-Trump duel is discouraging voters

El dia de la marmota
AJ Dereume holds up Phil the groundhog this Friday in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, in celebration of Groundhog Day.ALAN FREED (REUTERS)
Iker Seisdedos

First, the news: Phil the groundhog came out of his lethargy on Friday shortly after dawn and did not see his shadow, so, according to a nice tradition without a scientific basis, and at least in this part of the world, spring will come early this year.

Like every February 2, Candlemas Day, some 10,000 people gathered in Punxsutawney for the most famous weather forecast in the United States. It dates back to 1887 and allows this remote Pennsylvania town to claim the title of “meteorology capital of the world.” Bundled from head to toe to spend a night in freezing weather in the middle of a forest, people from all corners of the country (and some from other corners of the world) waited for hours for a man in a frock coat and top hat to lift up the scared-looking animal at 7:22 a.m and hold it aloft. At his side, another man read the verdict of the “forecaster of all forecasters,” written on a scroll. “Glad tidings on this Groundhog Day and early spring is on the way!” he proclaimed, and the audience erupted in cries of joy.

Groundhog Day has always been a big event in Punxsutawney, but this year it has broken attendance records. The number of visitors has been growing each year since the release of the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, as explained on Thursday by three affable women who run the local meteorology museum. In this masterpiece of existentialist comedy, Bill Murray, in the role of an embittered weatherman, is forced to relive the same discouraging day over and over again, in which he has to cover the popular event featuring a rodent. Although almost the entire film was shot over 500 miles to the west, in Woodstock (Illinois), it turned Punxsutawney into a great tourist attraction. It has also added to the English language lexicon: according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a groundhog day is “a situation in which the same usually negative or monotonous experiences occur repeatedly or are felt to occur repeatedly with no change or correction.”

Therefore, on this leap year, Groundhog Day takes on added interest as American politics have entered a groundhog year of their own, marked by the more than likely repetition of the electoral duel between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

Joe Biden y Donald Trump
Joe Biden versus Donald Trump: Groundhog Day?AP

Polls confirm that a large chunk of American voters have the same look on their faces as Murray did when the song I Got You, Babe, by Sonny & Cher, woke him up every morning (the same morning) at 6:00 a.m. According to the latest poll, released in late January by Reuters/Ipsos, 67% of respondents confirmed their weariness at seeing the same candidates in the presidential election, and expressed a desire to see someone new on the ballot.

That was certainly the opinion, on the cold Punxsutawney night, of Bill, a 55-year-old retired teacher. “This country is trapped in time,” he said, before admitting that he sees “no other option” than Biden. “At least I know what I can expect from him. Trump scares me.” Zack, a 20-year-old student from New York, regretted having registered to vote for the first time “in such an unexciting election.” “For young people, they don’t give us alternatives; our system is designed that way,” he added. Mark, 54, from the outskirts of Chicago, voted in 2016 for Trump and four years later for Biden, and now he would like there to be other options (“I understand that no one wants the job of president, in which half the country hates your guts”). Meanwhile, Michelle at least saw an opportunity to “throw that guy out of the White House.” “With Trump we had four years of peace, and look at us now.”

The longest campaign

To the lack of enthusiasm over a Biden-Trump second round, we must add the tedious fact that the confrontation promises to be the longest election campaign in living memory. The primary process, which began in mid-January in Iowa with Trump’s overwhelming victory over his opponents for the Republican nomination, continued in New Hampshire with another win, this time over Nikki Haley, the last Republican rival remaining. If the primaries are settled as soon as it seems, there will still be five months to go until the Republican convention, and six months for the Democratic one.

The next stop on the Democratic side is this weekend in South Carolina, where another victory for Biden is taken for granted after he defeated a little-known candidate, Dean Philips, in New Hampshire, despite the fact that the president was not even listed on the ballots. On Saturday, according to the poll aggregator Five Thirty Eight, Biden will be ahead with 68% of the votes (compared to 5% for his opponent).

The argument defended by Philips, a congressman from Minneapolis and a successful businessman, is that Biden has been a good president, but the worst possible candidate, above all, due to his advanced age: if he wins, he will be 82 years old when he begins his new term and 86 when it ends. Concerns about his age are widespread among the more left-wing Democrats, adding to other concerns, such as the fear that his support for the war in Gaza will reduce his support among Muslims and young people, and cause discontent among Black voters. In the party, no one has been able to run against him despite his physical weakness and low popularity (he only has an approval rating of 39%) and Democrats have waited until it was too late to present an alternative, while they entertained themselves with baseless theories such as a possible candidacy by Michelle Obama.

Laziness was also the capital sin pointed out by the neoconservative analyst Robert Kagan in a long essay published in The Washington Post that stirred a debate in the capital in December. It was titled “A Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable. We should stop pretending” and pointed out that the opportunity to build a front against him had vanished, trusting that justice would do its job: the tycoon faces 91 charges in four separate trials, and a legal operation is underway to disqualify him based on a little-used provision of the Fourteenth amendment, on which the Supreme Court will decide soon.

“So barring a Trump or Biden health crisis, revenge is inevitable,” says Georgetown University professor Michael Kazin, whose latest book is a history of the Democratic Party. “Haley remains in the race in the vain hope that one of those court cases will turn voters in her party against Trump, or perhaps because she wants to lay the groundwork for 2028.” Kazin also believes that “it is too late for Democrats to change candidates, unless Biden cannot continue for some reason. Filing deadlines for many primaries have passed, and it takes time to raise money, hire staff, drum up support... And at this point, a serious challenge would only divide and weaken the party’s chances of winning in November. It might have been a good idea for Biden to say, about a year ago, that he wouldn’t run. But not anymore.”

Governor of Pennsylvania Josh Shapiro attends Groundhog Day Festivities
Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro at the Groundhog Day party in Punxutawney this Friday.ALAN FREED (REUTERS)

A rising Democratic star, one of those who could have stepped forward, attended the Groundhog Day celebration early in the morning: Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro. He easily defeated Doug Mastriano, a radical Trumpist, in 2022. The Democrats cling to that in an essential hinge state, due to the number of delegates it contributes. Biden needs it if he wants to remain in office, he took the state in the 2020 elections, but the latest polls give it to Trump next November.

Although there are still nine months before the election, even the demographic gurus advise taking the figures with caution, in the same way that statistics also recommend doing with the groundhog’s predictions: it is right four out of 10 times. By the way, in 2020, the year in which the Super Bowl had the same opponents as this year: Kansas City Chiefs against San Francisco 49ers, Phil also predicted that spring would come early.

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