- Associated Press - Monday, March 14, 2016

TALLAHASSSEE, Fla. (AP) - Early voting statistics, tens of thousands of independent voters signing up with a party at the last minute and a lot of buzz about Donald Trump set the stage for a presidential primary like Florida hasn’t seen in a long time.

Even before Tuesday’s election, about 1.1 million Republicans had already voted in the winner-take-all contest for the state’s 99 delegates, one of the biggest prizes in the nominating process. Among Democrats, about 827,000 people had either cast ballots by mail or in person at early voting sites in a contest that will award 214 delegates proportionately by congressional district.

That means even before polls open Tuesday, about 22 percent of active voters from both parties will have voted, a total that could go a long way toward propelling Trump to the GOP nomination while effectively killing Sen. Marco Rubio’s chance of winning the presidency this year.

“Each election has its own vibe,” said Brian Corley, the Pasco County elections supervisor and president of the statewide supervisors association. “For presidential preference primaries, we haven’t seen this sort of level of energized voters or buzz. And I’ve never seen voters who are so engaged.”

From the end of January to Feb. 16, the last day to register or switch parties ahead of the primary, Florida saw Republican Party registration increase by 67,065 while Democratic Party registration increased by 34,943 and independent voters decreased 27,721. That’s the opposite of recent trends of people leaving parties to register as independents, Corley said.

“They were coming in like numbers we’ve never seen,” Corley said, adding that most were joining the Republican Party. “People were not shy about sharing who they were switching to vote for. Donald Trump.”

University of Florida political science professor Dan Smith has been tracking early voting figures and said it’s clear there’s particularly strong involvement among Republican voters. Of people who have already voted in the Republican primary, half didn’t vote at all in the 2012 presidential primary.

“There’s some excitement from people who have not felt compelled to participate in the primary process,” Smith said. “We know the candidates who are appealing to those people who have felt marginalized by the Republican Party establishment.”

The answer again: Trump.

Unless Rubio pulls an upset, he’s likely done. One strike against him is roughly 251,000 Florida Republicans cast ballots before former Gov. Jeb Bush dropped out of the race, according to Smith. That means those who supported the once-popular governor didn’t have a chance to change allegiances.

Florida set its ballot at the end of November with 14 Republican candidates. Now just Rubio, Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are still in the race.

“I’ve had people email me and say, ‘Brian, I just saw that Jeb Bush dropped out and I already voted for him by absentee. I need another ballot. I need a revote,’” Corley said. “No, it doesn’t work that way.”

In the Democratic contest, former first lady, senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton is seen as the favorite over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in a state where her husband, Bill Clinton, lost in 1992 and won in 1996.

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Follow Brendan Farrington on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bsfarrington

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