Hundreds of thousands of Republicans have taken advantage of early voting in Arizona, a factor that will likely benefit Donald Trump, and make it even harder for Sen. Ted Cruz to eke out a victory in the Grand Canyon State.
Updates provided Wednesday afternoon to the Washington Examiner from 13 of Arizona's 15 counties show that at least a quarter-million registered Republicans have already cast their ballots in the state's winner-take-all GOP presidential primary. Arizona is one of 34 states that currently permit early voting, which allows its residents to cast their ballots up to 26 days before the actual primary.
The flood of early voters and recent polls showing Trump doing well in Arizona are likely signs that Trump is on his way to capturing the state, where 58 delegates are up for grabs. The New York billionaire topped 30 percent in the latest Merrill poll of Arizona Republicans, and has two influential endorsements, from former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Maricopa Co. Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Trump is also conceivably the most attractive candidate to residents and ranchers across the southern half of the state who share his zero-tolerance attitude toward illegal immigration.
But beyond polling data and Trump's tough talk, what really gives the leading GOP candidate a leg up in Arizona is the already high percentage of primary participants relative to 2012.
In the nine counties for which comparable data exists, the number of votes already cast consistently amount to more than half of the 2012 primary turnout. In the case Maricopa, the largest county in the state and home to Phoenix, 235,051 early votes have already been returned, representing 75 percent of the total primary vote from four years ago. This could provide Trump a cushion to help protect against any late surge by Cruz.
"Trump and Bernie have both increased the interest in the presidential preferential primary on Tuesday and it has produced a tremendously higher turnout," Chris Herstam, a former Republican state legislator-turned-Democratic strategist, told the Examiner.
Herstam noted that Maricopa Co., Arizona's most populous county which includes the capital of Phoenix, is projecting a 60 percent overall voter turnout, 85 percent of which will be by mail.
"I think Arizona's sophisticated early balloting process, as well as Trump and Bernie exciting or angering people, has really given way to numbers that deviate from previous years," he said.
Another factor that potentially benefits Trump is that Arizona's early primary ballots still contain the names of ex-Republican candidates, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The Florida senator exited the race on Tuesday, following an embarrassing defeat by Trump in his home state, yet he will still draw a percentage of the vote away from Cruz, the most likely beneficiary of his supporters, from voters who cast their ballots before his departure.
An MBQF consulting poll taken last week found that 16 percent of Arizona Republicans who'd voted prior to participating in the survey had cast their ballots for Rubio. Twenty-three percent had voted for Cruz and 41 percent had voted for Trump.
"That helps Trump tremendously because so many ballots have already diluted the Cruz vote or the Kasich vote," Herstam said. "A lot of people have already voted for [Rubio] and now the anti-Trump vote is spread out and deluded which has, of course, been [Trump's] modus operandi throughout the race."
However, there are still some elements of Arizona's primary process that could prove detrimental to Trump and advantageous to Cruz.
For instance, Arizona election laws currently restrict registered independents from voting in the Republican or Democratic presidential primaries unless they re-register as a member of either party. The Arizona Elections Division says 37 percent of registered voters are independents — more than Republicans (34 percent) or Democrats (28 percent) — and that could deal a blow to a candidate like Trump, whose appeal among independents helped propel him to victory in states like New Hampshire, Mississippi and Michigan.
Additionally, Arizona has far fewer polling locations on primary day, making it more difficult for first-time voters, who've leaned towards non-traditional candidates like Trump in previous primaries, to determine where they are supposed to cast their ballot.
"I could see more traditional Republican voters, that would probably lean more towards Cruz or Kasich, having an easier time [locating where to vote] or having already gotten their ballot by mail because they're plugged into the system from previous elections," Herstam said.
Still, Herstam and others predict a massive victory for Trump next Tuesday.
"The polling data right now shows that Trump has a 14-point lead over Cruz," he noted. "I think that will hold and I think that he'll win by about 15-points. That's my gut instinct."
Trump has 661 delegates, more than half the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the GOP nomination, heading into next Tuesday, when Arizona and Utah will both vote. Cruz has 406 and Kasich has 142.