As Florida gets closer to its critically important March 15 presidential primary election, polls have been wildly divergent, with some showing Donald Trump comfortably in the lead and others showing a much closer race with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) within striking distance.
But a review of the early and absentee voting turnout has some very promising signs for Rubio.
First of all, a few points about Florida that are helpful to put the numbers in context.
Florida is a closed primary
Only those who designated a political party can participate in Florida's primary elections, including the presidential primaries. The deadline to designate a party has passed and no one not already a registered Republican will be allowed to vote in this year's GOP presidential primary in Florida.
Naturally, this is why it's smart to be highly skeptical of any Florida poll where the poll respondents aren't selected from verified voter rolls. It's irrelevant how conservative someone tells a pollster they are; if they're not an actual registered Republican, they will not be voting next Tuesday.
To no one's surprise, South Florida is viewed as a very favorable area for Miami native Rubio, especially with the large number of Hispanic voters. North Florida has been generally more favorable to Trump throughout the primary polling.
Early and absentee voting
All registered Florida voters can vote early instead of on Election Day, and do not have to give a reason. Absentee ballots are also available without requiring an excuse.
While many believed that the increased availability of early voting would increase voter turnout, the opposite has been true. In fact, a 2013 study by the University of Wisconsin found that early voting tended to decrease overall turnout:
These researchers say it’s because early voting robs “Election Day of its stimulating effects,” reducing social pressure to vote and gives less reason for campaigns to motivate their supporters and get them to the polls.
Voters are less motivated to cast ballots because early voting has the effect of “dissipating the energy of Election Day over a longer period of time….[S]ocial pressure is less evident, guidance on how or where to vote is less handy, and the prospect of social interactions at the polls is decreased,” they wrote.
Specifically in Florida, with its closed primaries, no-excuse absentee voting, and long early voting period, the main function of early voting is to shift people from Election Day voters to early voters.
Warning: Data coming up ahead!
I pulled Republican early and absentee voting numbers for Broward and Miami-Dade Counties for 2008, 2012, and 2016. What we are seeing is a significant increase in early and absentee voting in these two large South Florida counties, which could be a positive for Rubio.
On some, you'll see votes broken down as "OSS" and "IVO." That refers to the two types of voting machines, optical scan (OSS) machines, which are the main type used by the majority of voters, and IVO, the iVotronic machines that are used by voters who have a physical condition that affects them accessing the OSS machines or who request that machine.
- Broward County 2008: 14,453 voted early; 7,032 voted absentee;
- Broward County 2012: 10,064 voted early; 17,826 voted absentee.
- Broward County 2016: 26,942 voted early; 27,929 voted absentee; 14,551 absentee ballots still outstanding.
- Miami-Dade County 2008: 24,744 voted early; 33,548 voted absentee.
- Miami-Dade County 2012: 17,707 voted early; 43,683 voted absentee.
- Miami-Dade County 2016: 40,900 voted early; 61,275 voted absentee; 23,803 absentee ballots still outstanding.
For early voting, Broward had a 86% increase from 2008, and a 168% increase from 2012. Miami-Dade had a 65% increase from 2008, and a 131% increase from 2012.
For absentee voting, Broward County had a 297% increase from 2008, and a 57% increase from 2012. Miami-Dade County had a 83% increase from 2008, and a 40% increase from 2012.
The snap shot of early voting activity in Florida looks hopeful for Rubio. While the South Florida turnout is "off the charts," as one happy Rubio supporter texted me earlier after looking at the data, North Florida is showing less enthusiastic turnout. Across Florida, counties that went for Mitt Romney in 2012 match with the areas of higher turnout, largely viewed as a positive development for Rubio.
The main takeaway from all of this is: Rubio's strongest regions of support are showing high turnout, far above past trends, and may put him within reach of a victory on Tuesday night.
I reached out to sources in Florida who have been seeing internal polling data from various campaigns and organizations. Several reaffirmed past reports that internal polling has showed the race much closer than many of the public polls. One Florida source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that their internal poll showed Rubio within the margin of error of Trump.
Florida's presidential primary election is on Tuesday, March 15. Polls are open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. in each time zone. (Most of Florida is in the Eastern Time Zone, but the western part of the Panhandle is in the Central Time Zone.)
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.