MIAMI, Fla. — Marco Rubio is not just hoping to win Florida on Tuesday night — he's hoping to make history.
Down in every public poll of Florida’s GOP primary since August to frontrunner Donald Trump, Rubio acknowledged at a primary-eve rally in West Miami, in the neighborhood where he grew up and launched his political career, that he needed the largely Hispanic crowd to turn out.
"If this community doesn't vote in historic numbers, I don't know if I will be able to win," he said in Spanish.
Facing a certain deficit in the northern part of the state, where Republicans more closely parallel the blue-collar conservatives that have been delivering Trump decisive primary wins in the South — and where polling has shown Trump running strongest — Rubio’s advisers are focusing on boosting turnout in his home base of Miami-Dade county, with its heavily Hispanic and Cuban-American population, and working to turn enough voters in the notoriously swingy I-4 corridor to slim Trump’s margin there.
There, one top adviser said at Rubio’s Orlando headquarters on Sunday, “if we break even on I-4, we win.”
They’ll be watching the margins in Hillsborough and Orange Counties, where Tampa and Orlando are located, respectively, as well as Pasco and Pinellas Counties, both nearby Tampa, to get a sense of how the evening will unfold.
Asked how much the campaign hoped to boost turnout in Miami-Dade, the adviser said “as much as possible.”
Early vote totals do suggest strong turnout there, at 27 percent, slightly higher than the statewide average. But the early vote is also up in more Trump-friendly counties, like the heavily white Lee County and older Sumter County.
And according to Dan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida Research Foundation and an expert on the Florida early vote, a huge portion of those early voters — 43 percent of the 1.12 million Republicans who cast their ballot early through Sunday — were "unlikely" voters, who didn’t participate in the 2012 primary. Those new voters have tended to back Trump in the past.
Rubio's challenges in the polls have been compounded by what multiple fundraising sources described as a slow-down in donations, nearing a freeze, after his disappointing Super Tuesday finish.
“It’s clear to me that there’s kind of a holding pattern—donors are giving to the anti-Trump super PAC, but in regards to either [John] Kasich or Marco Rubio, they’re waiting to see what happens on Tuesday before they put more of their personal money directly into a campaign,” said one fundraiser who signed onto his campaign after his strong finish in South Carolina.
The cash-strapped candidate scrapped his typical big rallies — which can cost tens of thousands — in favor of smaller retail stops at local cafes and restaurants up and down the I-4 corridor this past weekend. The campaign has spent no money on the expensive Florida airwaves, leaving it to Rubio’s supportive super PAC to pick up the advertising slack. Conservative Solutions PAC ultimately spent $13.59 million on air supporting Rubio and attacking his opponents.
But the small crowds turning out at his rallies over the past week — in particular, a 700-person rally in heavily Hispanic Hialeah, which barely filled a third of the football field where it was held — don’t bode well for historic turnout among Hispanics. It's also far from certain that Rubio's been able to coalesce Hispanics behind him — a Washington Post-Univision poll out last week showed Trump drawing 20 percent and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz drawing 21 percent of Florida Hispanics, while Rubio nabbed 49 percent.
Rubio will have to make up any deficit in the early vote on election day, raising the stakes for the campaign’s turnout machine. But doubts remain over Rubio’s campaign operation in the state, which only kicked into gear a few weeks before the primary. He opened his first campaign office in the state a little over two weeks ago; a few days later he expanded up the state. Signing up volunteers to work some of the more far-flung offices was slow to start too, according to field staffers at multiple offices.
Rubio now has 10 field offices across the state and, his campaign says, over 30 full-time staff on the ground — part of a ground operation they called “the best among the Republican field” — and has made over 450,000 voter contact attempts since the first of this month. But even one Rubio ally characterized his ground game, optimistically, as “being a little late to the party in a place where nobody else is at the party.”
The sense among Rubio loyalists remains, however, that if anyone can pull out a come-from-behind win in Florida, he can. Staffers at his Orlando headquarters hung a vintage campaign sign from his 2010 Senate run across a wall, and affixed to it a hand-written sign that read: "He was the underdog here as well."
Campaign spokeswoman Caitlin Conant pointed to his improbable win against then-Gov. Charlie Crist in 2010 as evidence he can pull off an upset all over again.
"Marco Rubio has run as an underdog before and knows how to win campaigns in Florida. In 2010, the media and the establishment didn’t give him a chance against Charlie Crist – and he won. Marco has not only developed a statewide organization through the years, he has nurtured it - he has thousands of volunteers ready and eager to help,” she said.