WASHINGTON (AP) — In several states, Republican front-runner Donald Trump has been losing support as primary contests near. But in most cases, it's not happening fast enough for his rivals to catch up.
Exit poll data shows Trump tends to do worse with voters who wait to pick their candidate until the final days of campaigning in their states. In some places, these late deciders have been more than twice as likely to back Trump's main rivals — Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and to a lesser degree John Kasich — than the billionaire businessman.
So how does Trump keep winning?
The front-runner is buoyed by supporters who commit to a candidate early and in some cases, participate in early voting. Trump has often built up such a lead in early voting, or such high levels of support among early deciders, that his weaker showing among late deciders simply doesn't matter.
Anti-Trump forces have tried aggressively in recent weeks to peel even more voters away from Trump ahead of Tuesday's crucial contests. Millions of dollars in advertisements blasting Trump's business record and brash demeanor have been blanketing airwaves in Florida, as well as in Ohio and Illinois.
But unless Trump's support softens more substantially than in recent contests, Tuesday's primaries could give him a lead in the delegate race that will be difficult for his rivals to overcome.
In Florida, the biggest prize up for grabs Tuesday, more than 1 million people voted early in the GOP primary. That's about one-fourth of the projected electorate that can't be persuaded in the final days of campaigning.
Giving Trump's showing in other states with early voting, the numbers in Florida could bode well for the billionaire.
In Georgia, where Trump won handily, 44 percent of early voters sided with the real estate mogul. In Arkansas, Trump won about 34 percent of early voters, more than any other candidate, and also went on to win the state.
Early voting was designed to make it easier for more people to vote. It's become particularly popular in Florida, where 10 days of early voting were held in the lead-up to Tuesday's contest.
Jean Vasiliades of New Port Richey, Fla., is among those whose support has been cemented at the ballot box. While she attended a Rubio rally near her hometown Saturday, there was nothing he could say to win her vote — because she'd already cast it for Trump.
"I like Rubio very much and will vote for him if he runs again for Senate," she said.
THE ART OF (CLOSING) THE DEAL
Trump's strength with early voters is matched by his broad support among people who make their decision early, but vote on their state's primary or caucus day.
Across 15 states where exit polls were conducted, Trump was the choice of about 43 percent of voters who picked their candidate more than a week before their state's contests — far more than any of his rivals. The early deciders also comprised about two-thirds of the electorate in those states.
But there are indications that Trump struggled in some states to close the deal with voters who held off on making a decision.
In those same 15 states, just 23 percent of people who made up their minds in the last seven days of campaigning sided with the billionaire. That's according to Edison Research, which conducts exit polls for The Associated Press and television networks.
Iowa, which leads off the nominating process, was a particularly egregious example for Trump. In a crowded field with more than 10 candidates, Trump had the support of about one-third of voters who made their minds' early. Among those who decided on a candidate within a week of the caucuses, Trump's support slipped to 14 percent, far behind Rubio and Cruz, the Texas senator who went on to win the state.
WHO WINS WITH LATE DECIDERS?
Here's the problem for Trump's rivals: No single candidate has emerged as the clear beneficiary of the billionaire's inability to close the deal with late-deciding voters.
It's another consequence of a crowded primary field that's left voters with plenty of anti-Trump options.
In South Carolina, one of Trump's rivals may have been able to top the real estate mogul if they could have carried the majority of late deciders. Instead, 28 percent went to Rubio, 26 percent went to Cruz and 12 percent to Kasich. The breakdown was similar in Arkansas, with Rubio winning 35 percent of late deciders and Cruz carrying 31 percent in their losses to Trump.
Kasich, who desperately needs to stop Trump in his home state of Ohio, has been a non-entity in most of the primaries up until this point. But in Michigan, a state his campaign views as similar to Ohio, Kasich had a late surge, winning 43 percent of those who decided on a candidate within a week of the primary, compared to a paltry 13 percent of voters who made up their minds earlier.
While Kasich celebrated his third place finish, Trump walked away with the win.
AP News Survey Specialist Emily Swanson and AP writer Tamara Lush contributed to this report.
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC