What if the Republican primary field never shakes out the way conventional wisdom says it should? What if everything we thought we knew about the nominating process really is wrong? Who would be the GOP nominee in that case? The question is worth considering because if the pundits are wrong and cooler heads don't prevail, the party could end up with a completely unexpected name at the top of the ticket. And that person will start out with a virtual lock on at least 40% of the popular vote -- enough to win, under certain circumstances.
So, the most popular person in the field right now isn't necessarily going to be the next president. The successful candidate will be the one who can survive long enough to grab that 40% and make the most of it.
And who is the candidate in the best position to do that? Despite being bumped from even tonight's undercard debate, it will be none other than George Pataki.
Sound far-fetched? Well, we've seen fetching at even greater distances during the current cycle. Remember, the top three candidates in the Real Clear Politics polling average have combined to win exactly one election. And that was in Florida, which doesn't count because even if you win there, you don't have to show up for work.
OK, how could the former New York governor (that's Pataki, by the way) end up in the White House? Simple: He could get the most votes. Or not.
Either way, a Pataki victory scenario requires a few assumptions. First, assume all the other Republican candidates drop out before the party's nominating convention next summer. Could happen. Start by eliminating everyone currently polling under 10%. Assume also that Pataki stays in the race even though he was barred even from this week's junior varsity debate because he's polling at 0%. His constituency may not actually be -- how shall we put this? -- corporeal, but it has been nothing if not consistent in its non-existence.
That reduces the field to Pataki and the aforementioned top three: Noisily retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson; involuntarily retired reality show star Donald Trump; and prematurely retired U.S. Senator Marco Rubio. Based on their actions, it's hard to say that any of them is operating a legitimate campaign. Carson is only in the race to sell his book, A More Perfect Union. Trump is in it to sell his book Crippled America. Rubio is in it to sell his soul.
Once those sales are made, these candidates have no reason to maintain the fiction that they are actually running. And why would they, given Pataki's formidable structural advantage? Granted he's not as conservative as any of the top three. But the GOP doesn't tend to nominate the most conservative candidate even after that person piles up wins in the early primary states. Those state electorates are dominated by the most right-wing elements of the party. More moderate GOP candidates do better as the primary balloting shifts to states that are traditionally friendly toward Democrats.
Carson and Trump were always going to have trouble winning in the blue states. But their persistent success in national polls has forced Rubio further to the right, especially on immigration, damaging his chances with moderate voters. At some point, all three will do the math and realize that they can't beat the Pataki juggernaut. Carson goes off to become a swashbuckling archaeologist; Trump goes off to become a swashbuckling viral video star; Rubio goes off to become a swashbuckling credit counselor; and Pataki goes off to be a swashbuckling nominee by acclamation.
Now Pataki faces a tough campaign against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in an intramural affair involving former New York politicians -- Pataki served as governor from 1995 to 2006 and Clinton represented the state in the U.S. Senate from 2001 to 2009. New York vs. New York contests are endlessly fascinating...to people in New York. For the rest of the country? Not so much.
The outcome could still be close, but Pataki is just the sort of safe-sounding, easy-to-take alternative to the drama that goes along with Hillary Clinton. The best thing that could happen to her is a third-party candidacy that would siphon votes out of the Republican column -- a well-known outsider with a proven ability to generate excitement. Know anyonelikethat?
The next Republican Presidential debate starts at 9 p.m. ET this Tuesday, 11/10. Join TheStreet.com for live coverage of the event, starting with the under-card debate at 7 p.m. Tune in for stories, videos, and more, and make sure to follow us at @TheStreet on Twitter for live commentary by TheStreet Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Kanige during the debate.