Trounces. Crushes. Pummels. Pick a dramatic action verb: This is what Donald Trump does to Marco Rubio in Florida, according to a new presidential poll that shows Trump is more popular than he’s ever been in Rubio’s home state.
The survey, by Quinnipiac University, shows Trump leading Rubio 44-28 percent less than three weeks before Florida’s March 15 primary. And voters — tens of thousands of them — are already casting ballots by mail, which leaves Rubio very little time to make up the deficit against the Republican front-runner.
“If Sen. Rubio can’t win in his own home state, it is difficult to see how he can win elsewhere,” said a statement from Peter A. Brown, the poll’s assistant director.
Florida’s winner-take-all primary awards all 99 delegates to the first-place candidate, making it the biggest single prize early on in the race to secure the Republican nomination.
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Rubio adviser Todd Harris rebuffed the poll, saying Quinnipiac numbers are “way wrong.”
“We are going to win Florida. Period. Take it to the bank,” he wrote on Twitter.
Rubio himself predicted Wednesday: “We’ll win in Florida.”
A second poll Thursday tempered the Quinnipiac results somewhat. The leaked survey, by Associated Industries of Florida — one of the business lobbies in the state — shows Trump leading Rubio 34-27 percent.
Both polls found Rubio drawing the same amount of support. They differed on Trump’s popularity, but not on what lies beneath it: Trump leads among men in both polls, and also among voters who want a strong leader, or one with a strong national defense platform.
Trump’s popularity in the surveys hinges on who got polled and who will turn out to vote. Quinnipiac lets respondents self-identify if they’re likely to vote, while AIF picks likely voters based on their past voter history. Florida closes off its primaries to independents and doesn’t allow same-day voter registration, unlike in some early states that saw unusually high turnout which probably helped Trump.
The error margins were plus-or-minus 3.7 percentage points for Quinnipiac, and 4 percentage points for AIF.
Quinnipiac’s Brown noted Florida’s closed primaries make it more “uncertain” for Trump.
“Only registered Republicans may vote here, which raises the question of whether the flood of new voters Donald Trump seemed to bring to earlier contests will be able to participate in Florida,” he wrote.
Rubio wants to be the GOP’s Trump alternative. But before he can take him on one on one, he’d need rivals like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson to get out of the race. And why would they, when Rubio looks far from being able to hold his own state?
The Quinnipiac poll showed Cruz drawing 12 percent of the vote, Kasich 7 percent and Carson 4 percent. The survey was the first conducted since former Florida Gov. Jeb Bushdropped out of the race Saturday.
Trump’s popularity has shot up since the last Quinnipiac poll in Florida, in October. Back then, Trump won 28 percent, followed by Carson (16 percent), Rubio (14 percent) and Bush (12 percent). Rubio’s own support has doubled, but he’s still behind by 16 percentage points.
Whether Bush will try to give his friend Rubio a boost by endorsing him before the Florida primary remains an open question. His advisers are split on what Bush should do: back Rubio for the good of the Republican Party, or stay out of it because Bush’s support is unlikely to help Rubio enough to leapfrog Trump.
Bush, who’s been spotted this week back at the Biltmore Hotel gym, told financial donors in a thank-you call Wednesday that he’d work to elect a “conservative” — but didn’t name a candidate.
So many states vote before March 15 — nearly 1,000 delegates are up for grabs — that Rubio’s campaign hopes the Florida senator picks up enough support to edge Cruz. That might put Rubio on an upward trajectory coming into Florida, where voters like to pick national winners.
Of concern to Rubio backers is that his campaign hasn’t spent enough in Florida chasing absentee ballots, which is how Republicans tend to give themselves a cushion before Election Day. The super PAC aiding Rubio, Conservative Solutions, said it will start airing TV ads in Florida and a handful of other states beginning Friday.