Imagine this scenario, one I believe is not impossible, but improbable, given the tribalism of our politics.
Ron Paul works hard and finishes 1st in the Iowa thanks to Gary Johnson and John Huntsman's supporters trying to keep Romney in third place. Sarah Palin gets a phone call from Rand and then another from Ron. She decides to roll the dice and go rogue for real, believing a cabinet post is within reach.
Romney takes first in New Hampshire with Ron Paul coming in a distant second, and John Huntsman barely reaches double digits, nudging out Newt by less than a hundred votes for third with Rick Santorum nipping at their heels. Suddenly Ron Paul ascends to 28% in national polls, but Romney also moves up to 35%. Seeing an opening and returning favors, Ralph Nader, Cynthia McKinney and Bob Barr come on board.
Newt and Rick go all in for SC and the primary ends with the choir boy barely pulling off an upset. A recount gives Ron Paul second, Newt 3rd and Romney a close 4th. Huntsman finishes 6th behind Cain.
Huntsman receives several phone calls, all of them offering him Secretary of State. He's running out of money and Romney is doubling down everywhere. One of the phone calls comes from Paul who says in a very convincing way, "I want you to be my Secretary of State."
Huntsman surveys the field. Gary Johnson and Buddy Roemer have just dropped out and endorsed the leading outsider. Rick Perry is a ghost and Huntsman sees Newt as capable but full of himself, Santorum as insane, Herman Cain as a hurricane waiting to happen, Bachman as Rick in drag, and that leaves only two. Endorsing Romney will look like a Latter Day conspiracy and Ron Paul's age makes getting Romney out of the way his best bet for 2016. Besides that, Huntsman's endorsement will be viewed as the first mainstream, centrist approval of Paul. Doing so kills a second bird, his being perceived as overly cautious and too statesmen like. Nevada is his last chance but the Mormon machine is coalesing around Romney. He goes bold, knowing that Secretary of State is a sure thing and VP is a possibility with Paul.
Newt and Rick remain as the only viable alternatives to Romney that the establishment can live with. Backroom deals are in the works. Ron Paul has moved up to 32% in a poll conducted before the Huntsman endorsement. Romney has fallen to 34%. Rick and Newt each have 13% with the remaining 8% percent divided among various hangers-on.
More backroom conversation... Newt gets a phone call. He is reminded of opposition research percolating. A deal is hatched. Newt will drop out before Super Tuesday. Rick will be allowed to represent the anti-Romney crowd. There is a grey elephant loose and the unimaginable is starting to look all too plausible. Newt is, despite his mammoth ego, a loyal Republican. The rest of the deal looks like this:
After Romney wins, Santorum gets the VP slot and Newt helps Mitt with his conventionality problem. Romney announces that he will combine five cabinet offices, commerce, energy, health and human services, labor, and transportation into a new Department of Economic Security and Development. Czar Gingrich is content and disaster is averted", or so they think. Santorum's continued presence in the race to appease the anti-Romney crowd backfires.
Primaries and caucuses come and go and Tampa Bay is two weeks away without a nominee. To compound things Ron Paul has 35% of the popular vote and 34% of the delegates, both pluralities. Second place Romney and third place Santorum combined constitute a majority. This will not be pretty so Ron is offered Interior with EPA under his thumb and Energy shifted away from the Czar G. Ron Paul appreciates the irony and laughs as he walks out the door.
The GOP principalities and powers are left with no choice. The old man will not compromise, so they offer him 15 minutes at 3pm on Monday. The exodus happens during Santorum's prime time address. Ron Paul convinces his people to make it peaceful, but a zealot in the upper deck shouts, "Traitor!" Somebody from an unknown location follows with, "Treason!" A fight nearly breaks out but cooler heads prevail until the libertarians start shouting, "Liberty! Li-ber-ty! Li-ber-ty!" They take it outside as they were requested but no one's heading back to the hotel. Police are called in as onlookers linger larger and longer.
Dennis and Elizabeth are watching TV in Cleveland. Bernie is already on the phone to Ron Paul. Talking heads are spinning. something real and big is happening in American politics. Asian and European stock markets are diving. Futures for the next day are really looking bad. The markets are in wholesale panic. The Dow and Nasdaq loose 7% over two days but Romney gives a good speech, and discount artists bring the markets almost all the way back by Friday close.
Talking heads find a narrative the next week. Anderson and Perot are suddenly near the top of Google and Yahoo. Maddow and O'Reilly agree; 35 in the primary means no more than 25 in the general election. But then comes the announcement: Paul/Sanders have formed a new party called, "Jubilee." Red, white and blue bell-shaped placards read in gold lettering, "Proclaim liberty throughout the land."
Talking heads are spinning and the markets are bopping up and down. Polls for all three candidacies fluctuate between 28 and 38 right up to election eve. Election night is long and on Wednesday morning no one wants to say the obvious. The popular vote goes: