MIAMI (AP) — The Florida primary is weeks away, but tens of thousands of voters headed to the polls Monday for early voting in this critical contest that could make-or-break the presidential aspirations of native son, Sen. Marco Rubio.
Sixteen of Florida's 67 counties opened for early in-person voting, including some of the state's most populated areas, with the remaining counties kicking off early voting on March 5. That's on top of the nearly 600,000 people who have already cast their ballots as absentees, offering a glimpse at the direction of this primary, which for Republicans, is winner-take-all.
Florida's large and diverse population has turned it into a fiercely contested swing state in the general election, but it is also critical for nailing down all 99 Republican delegates at stake. For Rubio, who launched his longshot campaign nearly a year ago from Miami, a loss in Florida primary threatens to derail his ambitions of balking front-runner Donald Trump, who thus far dominates in early preference polls.
"We're going to win Florida," he told CBS' Face the Nation Sunday. "Florida is not going to vote for a con artist like Donald Trump."
Absentee and early voting are popular in Florida. Projections show that more than half of those voting in the primary will have cast their ballots before the March 15 primary. So far, more than 303,000 Republican voters and more than 261,000 Democratic voters have submitted their absentee ballots, according to University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith, who is tracking statewide absentee ballot returns.
That means the absentee ballots thus far cast in Florida alone far outnumber the combined 335,000 voters who took part in the Iowa and Nevada caucuses.
About 1.7 million Democratic and Republican voters requested absentee ballots ahead of the primary, said UF's Smith. Absentee voters were mailed ballots weeks ago and include the names of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and seven other GOP candidates who have since dropped out of the race.
Smith said almost 44 percent of the absentee Republican votes so far are from people who did not vote in 2012.
"This might bode well for (Donald Trump), as the competitive GOP primary appears to be drawing in a sizable number of Republicans — and absentee voters at that — who in previously primary contests have sat on the sidelines," said Smith.
Unlike Super Tuesday states, where the all-important delegates are divided proportionally based on votes, Florida's 99 Republican votes all go to the winner, versus the Democrats who award a total of 246 delegates on a proportional basis. As a closed primary, only registered Republicans and Democrats can vote in their respective primaries.
Florida's large batch of delegates is drawing candidates to the Sunshine State even with several other primaries scheduled in the first two weeks of March. Rubio and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton announced that each is holding nighttime rallies in Miami on March 1 — when nearly a dozen states host contests of their own — to kick off their campaigns in Florida with two weeks to go until the polls close there.
A Quinnipiac University poll released last week shows that Trump rolls into Florida with a 16 percentage-point lead over Rubio. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Ben Carson trailed the two front-runners. Among Democrats, Hillary Clinton appears to be ahead of rival Bernie Sanders in early preference polls.
Ellen Barnett, a 62-year-old accountant from Miami, said she "couldn't wait to vote," having cast her ballot Monday for Trump.
"He loves America. He's a businessman who knows what he's doing," she said. She described Rubio as "too young."
Hortensia Lee, a Democrat and Cuban-American from Miami, said she early voted for Clinton because "the country is not ready for a socialist like Bernie Sanders."
This year, more than 4.2 million registered voters are Republicans and almost 4.6 million are Democrats, according to figures released over the weekend by the Florida State Department's Division of Elections. Nearly 2.9 million Floridians are registered as "no party affiliation" and therefore cannot vote in the primary.
Of this year's 12 million registered voters, 66 percent are white, 15 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are black.
Oscar Amor and his wife, Marta, both Cuban-Americans in their 70s, came together to vote for Trump describing Rubio as "too establishment" for their political taste.
"He cannot be compromised because he cannot be bought," said Oscar Amor. "Trump shows strength and reminds me of Ronald Reagan."