And what happens if Republicans lose the White House, fail to make any progress in taking back the Senate and see their majority erode in the House of Representatives?

I can see two potential narratives.

First, the conservative/Tea Party wing blames the defeat on Romney's lack of seriously conservative credentials. The solution to defeat, then, is to move the party further to the right. In the context of the fiscal cliff, that would mean the party would dig in its heels on spending and tax cuts. Some in the conservative/Tea Party wing believe so strongly that the future of the Republic hinges on cutting taxes and spending, and on reducing the size of the federal government, that they would be willing to pull a "Thelma and Louise," and drive off a cliff rather than compromise.

Second, the more pragmatic wing of the Republican Party -- which has been shrinking in size and influence in the past two election cycles -- blames the conservative/Tea Party wing for the Republican defeat on Tuesday. In this narrative, the extremism of conservative/Tea Party wing candidates alienated independent voters, and, despite Romney's efforts to run back toward the center in the campaign's closing days, cost Republicans the election.

Tasting the tea

I'd expect a tough battle between these two narratives if Republicans lose. The winning side will likely depend on which Republican candidates win and lose on Tuesday.

Conservative/Tea Party Republicans would argue that losses by Senate candidates such as Richard Mourdock in Indiana and incumbent Todd Akin in Missouri were due to extreme positions and verbal ineptitude more than to the candidates' fiscal policies. That argument gets harder to make if Republicans lose in Virginia, Montana, North Dakota and Wisconsin, but I'd expect that conservative/Tea Party Republicans will spin a narrative that says candidates such as Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin lost because they were insufficiently conservative.

That narrative will get harder to sustain if clearly conservative/Tea Party incumbents lose their races in the House of Representatives -- or if conservative/Tea Party stalwarts shakily survive surprisingly tough challenges.

Races to watch to see if candidates with conservative/Tea Party credentials lose and weaken the "We weren't conservative enough" narrative: Arizona's 9th District, where Democrat Kyrsten Sinema faces Vernon Parker; California's 3rd District, where incumbent Democrat John Garamendi faces a challenge from Kim Vann in a redrawn district; California's 9th District, where incumbent Democrat Jerry McNerney faces off against Ricky Gill; Connecticut's 5th District, where Democrat Elizabeth Esty faces Andrew Roraback; Michigan's 1st District, where Tea Party favorite Dan Benishek's opponent, Gary McDowell, has tied him to Ryan's Medicare plans; and New York's 24th District, where Ann Marie Buerkle, a Tea Party Republican, faces a rematch with Dan Maffei. Parker, Vann, Gill and Roraback are all recruits of the "Young Gun" program designed to boost young conservatives to victory in House races.

Races to watch to see if they're close enough to scare conservative/Tea Party Republicans: Michelle Bachmann in Minnesota's 6th District, Allen West in Florida's 18th District, Steve King in Iowa's 4th District and Roscoe Bartlett in Maryland's 6th District.

To the winner goes the narrative

There's just about no chance that the House will switch hands in this election, but the narrative, win or lose, is up for grabs.

And although the election will be decided on Tuesday (probably), the battle over the narrative to explain the results will have just begun. And it's that story -- the story that politicians will tell themselves to explain the results -- that will provide the background for the politics of the fiscal cliff that will dominate the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013.

For once, the political rhetoric will count. Listen carefully as politicians try to explain to themselves what happened on Tuesday.

Updates to Jubak's Picks

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Jim Jubak's column has run on MSN Money since 1997. He is the author of the book "The Jubak Picks," based on his market-beating Jubak's Picks portfolio; the writer of the Jubak's Picks blog; and the senior markets editor at MoneyShow.com. Get a free 60-day trial subscription to JAM, his premium investment letter, by using this code: MSN60 when you register at the Jubak Asset Management website.

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