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How to make sense of the results in Tuesday's Republican primaries

Donald Trump speaking in front of Trump plane
Donald Trump campaigns in Ohio. A win there would be huge for him.
Angelo Merendino/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Donald Trump's rallies over the weekend were scenes of tumult and violence, tacitly egged on by the Republican frontrunner. Today we learn if any of the condemnation really mattered — or if Trump's march to the Republican nomination continues unimpeded.

By the end of tonight's primaries in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio, more than half the delegates in the primary process will already be bound to candidates.

And if the polls are right, many of these states' delegates will go to Trump. Wins in Florida and Ohio would give Trump a nearly unsurmountable lead in the race for the nomination. Marco Rubio, on the other hand, could easily wake up Wednesday morning with any prospect of the presidency all but gone.

Florida: A home-state defeat for Rubio?

Winning really means something in Florida and Ohio, the first winner-take-all states of the Republican primary. So far, second- and third-place finishers have still walked away with some delegates in the elections so far.

But in Florida and Ohio, which have a combined 165 delegates, winning is all that matters. Winning in both could put Trump solidly on the road to the nomination. And if that's not enough drama, both are states where a rival to Trump has a home-turf advantage.

Florida is Sen. Marco Rubio's home state. Still, the polls suggest he's likely to lose to Trump, and badly. Rubio trails Trump by nearly 20 points in the RealClearPolitics polling average. This wouldn't just be a defeat — in his home state, it would be a catastrophe.

Losing Florida and its 99 delegates would leave Rubio with one thin argument for his candidacy: By staying in the race, he draws votes away from Donald Trump, making it more likely that the Republican nomination won't be decided until the convention.

And if Rubio loses, the pressure on him to drop out is likely to be tremendous. (The autopsies on his campaign are already being published.)

It's worth noting that while voters going to the polls today get all the attention, 2 million people in Florida have already voted, including 1.1 million Republicans — half the state's voters. Given the overwhelming negative coverage of Trump over the weekend, early voting could be another blow to Rubio: Anyone who already cast a ballot for Trump doesn't get a chance to change her mind. On the other hand, Trump is actually gaining in the state in recent polls, so it's possible that early voting could slightly cushion Rubio's defeat.

Ohio: Will John Kasich pull out a win?

Ohio is the second-biggest prize of the night, after Florida: 66 delegates, all bound to the candidate who wins the state. And John Kasich could plausibly score his first victory of 2016.

Kasich and Trump are in a tight race in the Ohio polls. Most recent polls have found Kasich leading slightly, but within the margin of error. That speaks to the strength of Trump's support: Kasich is very popular as governor in Ohio, where his approval rating is 66 percent. And Trump could still win.

Like Florida, Ohio also offers early voting, but fewer voters have taken the state up on it: About 325,000 ballots for both parties have been sent out. It's not clear if early voting would help Trump or hurt him. He's fallen in the polls recently, so ballots cast in late February might have been more likely to be in his favor. On the other hand, the state's Republican Party is backing Kasich and organizing, including urging voters to vote early.

The rest: Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina

Ohio and Florida are the most important states voting Tuesday. But the other three could add some interesting twists as well.

Illinois: Trump leads the polls in Illinois, but the most recent poll, from CBS and YouGov, had him within the margin of error, with 38 percent to Cruz's 34 percent. Illinois is also home to the chaos that surrounded a planned Trump rally on Friday, where protesters and supporters clashed with each other and the police, was also widely publicized — though it's not clear if that would help Trump or his rivals.

Also, Illinois awards delegates by congressional district, so it's possible that both Kasich and Cruz could end the night with some delegates as well.

Missouri: Missouri hasn't been polled much, but Trump's leading in the few polls that have been taken in the state. Still, Ted Cruz won the caucuses in neighboring Kansas and ran strongly in Arkansas, so it's not out of the question that he could win the state.

North Carolina: North Carolina awards its delegates proportionally, so it's less important than the other states, which are either winner-take-all or winner-take-all by congressional district. Trump is winning there too, and the only candidate likely to mount a serious challenge is Cruz.