MIAMI — Businessman Donald Trump has been projected as the winner of the Republican primary in Florida, according to exit polls and early returns — a stunning defeat of Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) on Rubio’s home turf.
In the Democratic race, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has been projected as the winner of her party’s Florida primary.
The Associated Press projected Trump as the winner just after the last polls in Florida’s western panhandle closed at 8 p.m. Eastern time. Under the rules of Florida’s “winner-take-all” GOP primary, Trump will get all 99 of the state’s delegates to the GOP convention — his biggest victory of the campaign so far.
For Rubio — the first-term senator who had become the vessel for the GOP establishment’s hopes to stop Trump — the loss is devastating. It effectively ends his hopes of gaining a majority of delegates before the GOP convention. It may end his candidacy outright.
Among the Democrats, Clinton’s win in Florida is not as decisive: the state’s Democratic delegates will be split between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), not awarded to the winner en masse. Still, even before a vote was cast on Tuesday, Clinton already held a commanding lead over Sanders in the delegate race. So far, Tuesday’s results have extended it.
Polls have now closed in all five states that held presidential primaries on Tuesday — setting up a cliffhanger night in American politics, where the returns could re-shape both parties’ races.
In the other three states – North Carolina, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri — both the Democratic and Republican primary races remain too close to call.
In preelection polling, Clinton was leading the Democratic race in both North Carolina and Ohio, though her lead over Sanders had narrowed in Ohio.
In the Republican races, Trump was leading in preelection polls in North Carolina, while Ohio Gov. John Kasich held a thin lead over Trump in his home state’s winner-take-all primary.
The last polls in Florida, Missouri and Illinois close at 8 p.m. Eastern time.
In the first returns from states that closed earlier in the evening, Kasich was leading Trump in Ohio, and Trump was leading Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) in North Carolina. On the Republican side, Clinton was ahead in all three states where votes are already being counted: Florida, Ohio and North Carolina. Her lead in Florida exceeded 30 points.
Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who had long seen Florida as the linchpin of his presidential campaign, showed little signs of optimism. News reports indicated that Rubio had rented a Florida basketball arena for his caucus-night party, but had chosen to hold the event in a far smaller space: the arena’s concourse hallway.
Florida is one of the day’s biggest prizes in both races. In the Republican race, it is one of two “winner-take-all” states voting on Tuesday: the state’s 99 delegates will be given to the victor en masse. In preelection polls, businessman Trump held a commanding lead over Rubio. If that advantage holds, it would be a huge — and potentially campaign-ending defeat — for Rubio, a first-term senator, who was, until recently, the brightest star in Florida politics.
In the Democratic race, preelection polls showed former secretary of state Clinton holding a commanding lead in Florida over Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).
For both Trump and Clinton, however, a win in Florida would not necessarily guarantee a good night.
Trump, for instance, also faces close races in Ohio — another winner-take-all state where he’s running against a sitting governor, Kasich — and in Missouri, where he’s facing a challenge from Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas).
Trump holds a relatively narrow lead in the overall race for GOP delegates, and needs a very good showing across all five states in order to take a commanding position. If he falters on Tuesday night, that would raise the odds of a “contested” GOP convention, where Trump’s rivals in the GOP could try to hand the nomination to someone less bombastic, antagonistic and popular.
Clinton’s lead in delegates is far more commanding, and the Democrats’ system of apportioning delegates makes it very difficult for Sanders to catch up. But Clinton’s goal is now to move beyond the primary race, and gather her party behind her for the general election.
If she loses several states to Sanders on Tuesday, that could mean a prolonged race — in which Sanders will likely continue his harsh attacks on Clinton’s closeness to Wall Street and support for free-trade measures.
In early exit polls reported by ABC News, Democratic primary voters had a split view of the two candidates: they tended to see Clinton as far more electable — but see Sanders as more honest. By a roughly 2 to 1 margin, Democratic voters said Clinton had a better chance than Sanders of beating Trump in a general election matchup across Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, Illinois and Missouri.
But roughly 8 in 10 said Sanders was honest and trustworthy, compared with about 6 in 10 for Clinton. Sanders has dominated among honesty-focused voters all year while Clinton has won those focused on electability by a wide margin.
According to those same early exit polls reported, large majorities of Democrats in Tuesday’s primaries would be satisfied with either Clinton or Sanders winning the Democratic nomination. At least 7 in 10 voters across primary voting states would be satisfied with each candidate becoming the party’s nominee, with slightly more satisfied with Clinton than Sanders.
Among Republican primary voters, by contrast, preliminary exit polls showed unusual hesitancy about the prospect of Trump as the nominee. Across all of Tuesday’s states, a little more than half of GOP voters said they would be satisfied with Trump as the Republican nominee against Clinton, according to early exit polls from ABC News.
Just under 4 in 10 Republican voters across Tuesday’s contests said they would consider a third-party candidate if Trump and Clinton were the nominees. Looking specifically at non-Trump supporters, ABC reported 6 in 10 would consider backing a third-party candidate if Trump became the party’s nominee.
Campaigning at a North Carolina polling place at midday, Clinton urged her supporters to come out to vote, despite polls showing her leading in a number of races. Sanders, meanwhile, told reporters at a breakfast campaign event that he believes the campaign map tilts in his favor after Tuesday.
Among Republicans, the day’s contests offered a chance for billionaire Donald Trump’s remaining rivals to finally slow his march to the nomination with two winner-take-all contests that have particularly high stakes for a pair of favorite sons, Rubio and Kasich.
Cruz, meanwhile, hoped to pick up delegates in contests in Illinois, North Carolina and Missouri and retain his position as Trump’s chief Republican rival.
Trump scored an early win Tuesday morning, swamping the tiny vote in a Republican caucus held in the Northern Mariana Islands, according to a tweet from the executive director of the GOP in the U.S. territory.
The win earned Trump nine delegates, only a tiny sliver of the 367 delegates at stake Tuesday. But should the chaotic Republican race lead to a contested national convention in July, the win could prove important because of arcane party rules that require candidates to have won a majority of delegates in at least eight states or territories. The win was Trump’s eighth of the nominating season.
Voting was running relatively smoothly across the country, although a frightening incident interrupted one Cleveland voting location, where police said a poll worker was arrested after pulling a gun during a verbal dispute with fellow workers.
A spokeswoman for the Cleveland Police Department said Alan Bethea, 45, faced multiple charges. Police say he pulled a .380 handgun from his backpack during the argument. No one was injured.
Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Missouri officials had estimated 34.1 percent of voters would take part in the primary, nearing 2008’s record turnout of 36 percent. News reports in other parts of the country also reported lines in hotly contested races.
In North Carolina, where a controversial new voter identification law was in use for the first time, voting rights advocates were on alert for problems. A spokeswoman for the North Carolina State Board of Elections said late in the day that primaries were running smoothly.
A new Washington Post analysis showed that a handful of independent groups have pummeled Trump with $35.5 million in hard-hitting negative television ads and other attacks in the days leading into Tuesday’s vote. But it was unclear if the ads would dent his popularity.
In Ohio, where 66 delegates are on the line, Kasich held a slim lead in recent polls. After casting a ballot for himself, he told reporters that his neighbors and family have been proud of his positive campaign. “I just want to be a good guy, helping my country,” he said.
But, referencing Trump, he added that going forward he would be forced “to talk about some of the deep concerns I have about the way this campaign has been run by some others — by one other in particular.”
The day’s biggest prize is Florida, where 99 delegates are at stake and which could be the last stand for Rubio, a candidate once touted as “the Republican savior” who more recently has badly trailed Trump in polls even in his home state.
Rubio blanketed the airwaves of South Florida on Tuesday morning, appealing on English and Spanish-language television and radio stations to the communities that propelled his political rise through the West Miami City Commission, to the Florida House of Representatives and into the U.S. Senate.
“Tomorrow we’re in Utah, but today is about Florida,” he said on WFOR-TV in a live interview before the sun came up.
Rubio, who is scheduled to appear Tuesday night at Florida International University, where he has been a part-time professor, expressed optimism that Florida voters, who know him best, will provide a surprise win.
“This is not a race for circuit judge. People are going to support — they know who the candidates are, they’ve been watching for a while,” he said.
And he repeated recent remarks that it’s “getting harder every day” to pledge he will support Trump, should the businessman win the Republican nomination.
“I’m just disgusted by some of the things he’s doing in his campaign, to be honest with you. I know people are angry, I know people are frustrated, but leaders don’t take advantage of anger and frustration. They address it, but then they say here’s how we’re going to solve it. He’s spurring it on,” he said.
A more subdued Trump appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Tuesday, walking back previous comments that he was “looking into” paying the legal fees of a man who sucker-punched a protester at a Trump rally in North Carolina last week.
“I didn’t say that. I haven’t looked at it yet. And nobody’s asked me to pay for fees,” Trump said. “I never said I was going to pay for fees.”
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Trump told host Chuck Todd that he had “instructed my people to look into” paying the man’s bills. But asked Tuesday whether paying legal fees for violent rally attendees would encourage more violence, Trump responded: “Well, maybe so. And maybe that’s why I wouldn’t do it. I don’t condone violence at all. I looked, and I watched, and I’m going to make a decision, but I certainly don’t condone violence. And maybe you’re right. And maybe that’s why I wouldn’t do it.”
Hundreds of thousands of ballots have already been cast in early voting in Florida. Turnout was light in the early morning at a polling place near the airport in Miami. But the voters who showed up sounded passionate about their choices.
Luis Joaquin Alonso, 79, said he voted for Trump, citing concerns about the deficit and the desire for someone to take on the political establishment.
“I love this country,” he said, adding that Trump does, too, and that’s why he is running.
“This guy has got plenty of money. He doesn’t need [more] money,” Alonso said.
In Ohio, Kasich was counting on voters who have appreciated the job he has done as governor.
“He’s done a great job for Ohio,” said Lauri Gillet, 42, a civil engineer who voted for Kasich in Westerville, the governor’s home town. “He’s the best of both worlds, from a business standpoint and a politics standpoint. And Ohio’s doing great. There’s been a ton of growth in the oil and gas industry.”
Among Democrats, multiple polls in the days leading up to Tuesday’s contests showed Sanders closing in on Clinton in three states in the industrial Midwest — Missouri, Illinois and Ohio. But polls show Clinton far ahead in Florida and in North Carolina, setting up the possibility of an outcome parallel to last week’s contests, when Sanders scored a narrow and surprising victory in Michigan, yet Clinton came away with a widened lead in the delegate count because of her resounding victory in Mississippi.
In other words, Clinton appears poised to continue her progress toward the Democratic nomination, but ever more bloodied by her battles with Sanders.
While out for breakfast Tuesday morning in downtown Chicago, Sanders predicted he could have a good night if larger numbers of voters take part in the contests — setting up a long nomination battle in states that are even friendlier to his campaign.
“I think that if there is a large voter turnout, we are going to do just great here in Illinois, in Missouri, Ohio, and hopefully North Carolina and Florida,” Sanders said during a stop at Lou Mitchell’s, a Chicago institution. “In the states that are coming down the pike, we have great opportunities to win many of them, so we are feeling really good.”
Sanders was accompanied by Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor against Rahm Emanuel last year. Part of Sanders’s strategy in Illinois has been mobilizing those disappointed with the tenure of Emanuel, a Clinton ally whose approval ratings have dropped to all-time lows.
In North Carolina, Clinton campaigned at a polling place in Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School around midday on Tuesday, greeting supporters with hugs and selfies.
She warned that her supporters might see public polling that shows her with leads in many of the states voting Tuesday and conclude that they don’t need to vote, which her campaign believes might have contributed to her unexpected loss to Sanders in Michigan last week.
“Sometimes the reporting of polls, some might say: well, my candidate is doing so well, I don’t need to come out,” Clinton said. “But everybody should come out. There’s so much at stake in this election.”
Clinton has been eager to pivot her campaign to confront Trump more directly. But asked Tuesday if she was concerned that a protracted primary fight with Sanders would impede Democrats’ ability to wage a general-election fight against the GOP nominee, she declined to encourage Sanders to leave the race.
“He has a right to run his campaign in any way that he chooses, and I’m proud of the campaign we’ve run,” Clinton said.
Trump’s rhetoric drove some voters Clinton’s way in the Democratic contest. Tonya Massenburg, 53, voted for Clinton in Raleigh because she is primarily concerned about “violence” and “racism” in the country right now — and less concerned about Sanders, about whom she said she knows very little.
“I just hope that North Carolina pulled through for Hillary Clinton,” she said. “Because of the way this country is headed, it’s not very good.”
Also Tuesday, Clinton announced that she has been endorsed by the mother of Michael Brown, the teenager whose 2014 shooting by police in Ferguson, Mo., brought more attention to officer-involved slayings of unarmed black men.
The endorsement came as Clinton has appeared to lose ground to Sanders in Missouri, with the most recent poll showing an effective tie.
“When I lost my son, I lost my world. ‘Big Mike’ was a big boy, but he was my baby boy, my only child, and his life was brutally taken from me,” Lezley McSpadden wrote in her endorsement statement.
“This election season, we are at battle for the soul of our nation,” McSpadden said. “If we want to continue to build on the progress made by our country, we need a president who is ready to lead — and I trust Hillary Clinton.”
McSpadden was among a group of African-American mothers who met privately with Clinton last year, and Clinton has made the mothers’ stories a regular part of her political speeches, as she talks about the need for criminal justice reform and better gun control.
Polls showed Sanders competitive with Clinton in other states voting Tuesday as well. The only state where they showed Clinton with a sizable lead was Florida, the most delegate-rich contest.
Florida’s primary is closed, meaning that independents, who have sided with Sanders in large numbers in other states, won’t be able to participate. The state is also home to large numbers of seniors, who have gravitated far more heavily toward Clinton elsewhere.
In Miami, Luis Caldera, 61, said he voted for Clinton. He called her “the best option” and said her experience and his familiarity with her career set her apart.
In Youngstown, Ohio, Dave Williams, 52, cast a ballot for Sanders, deeming the Vermont senator better for working people.
“I lost my house when the stock market crashed. That was before the government was doing anything to keep people in their homes. And I’ve gone from a house since then to an apartment,” said Williams, a member of cement finishers local 179. “I’m an angry voter, how ’bout that? I’m angry about the way the country is working for the blue-collar worker. Hillary gets a big, fat zero on that.”
Helderman and Fahrenthold reported from Washington. Ed O’Keefe in Miami, David Weigel in Youngstown, John Wagner in Chicago, Abby Phillip in Raleigh, and Scott Clement, Anne Gearan and Matea Gold in Washington also contributed.