Presidential candidates and their surrogates made their final pitches for Florida’s votes on Monday, even as polls suggest there may be little suspense on election night in the state for either Democrats or Republicans.
With 99 winner-take-all delegates up for grabs on the GOP side, Florida is the biggest prize of Tuesday’s contests. Statewide, more than 2 million Floridians have already cast absentee ballots or voted early. Republican voters edged Democratic turnout, with more than 1.1 million Republicans casting early votes, compared to fewer than 850,000 Democrats.
Polling sites across the state open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m., though voters still waiting in line at 7 p.m. will have the opportunity to cast a ballot. Other states voting include North Carolina, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri.
There were signs of renewed enthusiasm among Florida Republican voters: Of all the Republicans who have voted so far, 43 percent didn’t participate in the 2012 presidential primary, according to numbers crunched by Daniel Smith, a professor at the University of Florida, who said the enthusiasm may boost the outsider candidate in the race: Donald Trump.
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Trump leads his closest rival in the state, Sen. Marco Rubio, by nearly a 2-1 margin in some polls.
“Rubio, who has staked his future on winning his home state, looks like he’ll soon be toast,” said pollster Peter Brown, whose Quinnipiac University poll found Trump at 46 percent and Rubio at 22 percent. “There are very few examples of candidates making up that much ground in 24 hours.”
Trump, who cancelled a Monday night rally in Doral to campaign in Ohio, where he’s in a tight race with Ohio Gov. John Kasich, campaigned in Tampa, picking up the endorsement of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
“People today are looking for leadership, the kind that Mr. Trump offers, that’s unafraid to tell it like it is,” she said.
A win for Trump in Florida and Ohio would give him a sizable delegate lead and make it increasingly difficult for the Republican establishment to not consider him the party’s presumptive nominee.
Trump plans to return to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach on Tuesday night to hold what has become his customary victory-night press conference.
Rubio crossed the state from Jacksonville and Melbourne to West Palm Beach and was to finish in West Miami — where he got his start in politics when he was elected to the City Commission in 1998.
Ted Cruz and Kasich, who trail Trump and Rubio in Florida polls, campaigned elsewhere, though Cruz’s campaign Monday announced an expanded Florida state leadership team of more than 375 elected officials, community leaders, pastors and conservatives.
Polls suggest Democrat Hillary Clinton has a wide lead over Bernie Sanders, neither of whom has campaigned in the state for several days. Clinton, who plans to watch election returns in West Palm Beach on Tuesday, dispatched former president Bill Clinton to North Florida, the heart of territory she struggled in during her 2008 presidential campaign.
Bill Clinton did not mention any of the Republican candidates for president by name, but compared their primary process to a “sixth grade food fight.”
He said his priority was his wife’s campaign: “The election is tomorrow, and I came here more than anything else to ask you to be sure and vote.”
Sanders campaigned in Illinois and North Carolina, where he’s hoping for an upset victory like the one he had last week in Michigan to bolster his campaign, which finds itself trailing Clinton in delegates.
In Florida, the Quinnipiac University survey found Clinton ahead of Sanders 60 percent to 34 percent.
Election officials expect one of their biggest challenges will be to remind voters who are registered — but not affiliated with a party — that Florida’s primary is closed, meaning only Democrats and Republicans can vote in each party’s primary.
Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Christina White urged voters to check their registration cards to make certain they’re eligible — and to make sure their polling location remains the same. New precincts mean some voters have been assigned different polls since the last election. Unlike during early voting, voters must cast ballots at their assigned precincts on Election Day.
Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei, Tallahassee bureau reporter Jeremy Wallace and reporter Maria Recio of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.