Maybe I am — we all are — reading too much into this. But I think the safer guess is that we aren't. After all, this was part of what Romney said when he emerged from the unabashedly fancy restaurant where the two (and Reince Priebus) ate.
“He did something I tried to do and was unsuccessful in,” Romney told reporters. “He won the general election.”
Out of the context of the moment, it's impossible not to add in a mental sad trombone at the end of that last statement. (In the moment, mind you, Romney was characteristically proper and on message.) Part of the emotion here, of course, is that Romney earnestly opposed Trump's candidacy in the primary campaign and seemed clearly unenthusiastic about the prospect of a Trump victory. It isn't just that Romney wasn't successful and that the next Republican was — it's that the next Republican was Trump. Trump beat him in wealth, in electoral votes and in the number of tall buildings owned. Humbling to anyone.
But there's a bit of consolation Romney can draw from his electoral performance.
First and foremost, a larger percentage of voters in 2012 supported Romney than supported Trump this year. Four years ago, Romney garnered 47.2 percent of the vote, according to the U.S. Election Atlas. This year, thanks in part to losing the popular vote and in part to third-party candidates, Trump got 46.3 percent.
What's more, Romney captured a larger percentage of the vote in 24 states and the District of Columbia. We can plot the performance of the two candidates against each other. Any dot over the diagonal line is a state where Romney received a higher percentage of the vote; a dot below, Trump did.
The place Trump outperformed Romney by the most was West Virginia. The place Romney outperformed Trump the most was, unsurprisingly, Utah.
You'll quickly notice that a lot of the places where Romney outperformed Trump were states that Hillary Clinton ended up winning this time. About half of the states where Romney did better than Trump were blue states (which is part of why Trump was elected president and Romney wasn't). Only eight of the 26 states where Trump did better were ones his opponent won.
Interestingly, Romney also received more actual votes than Trump in 13 states — including the red states of Alaska, Kansas, Mississippi and Wisconsin (thanks, Paul Ryan). This, despite there being about 6 million more votes cast this year vs. four years ago.
There are an infinite number of qualifications that apply here: turnout, those third-party candidates and so on. Maybe Trump's endorsement of Romney in 2012 made all the difference! But our goal here isn't really to demonstrate that Romney was more successful than Trump, because the presidency is essentially zero-sum and Romney ended up with a zero. It is instead to perhaps reassure Romney that in the cosmic contest against his sworn enemy, there were battles where he emerged victorious.
Even if, sitting hat in hand in the posh restaurant adjoined to your sworn enemy's Manhattan hotel, those victories seemed awfully distant.