Everyone will be writing about the mistakes the Romney team made (e.g. ducking South Carolina, his wholesale position revisions). However, the Romney campaign got a few things very right. First, the early primaries do matter. His losses in Iowa and New Hampshire and McCain’s revival in the latter really set the course for the race. We were all distracted by McCain’s defeat in Michigan, but that was, after all, a home state win for Romney. With that sole deviation, it was largely McCain’s race after New Hampshire.
Second, there was an opening on the Right when the race started which Romney recognized as an opportunity. George Allen had fallen out of contention with his Senate loss and there was room to run to the right of McCain and Rudy. However, neither Romney nor anyone else saw Mike Huckabee coming. He denied Romney an Iowa win and from then on deprived Romney of social conservative votes. (The contrary argument is that these voters would never have gone for Romney, and, had it not been for Huckabee, would have been in McCain’s camp all along.)
Third, the economy is increasingly becoming the key issue of the campaign (in no small part, due to the success of the surge which McCain helped promote). With his business background Romney was well positioned to talk about the issue voters cared most about. However, voters who considered this the principle issue in New Hampshire, Florida and on Super Tuesday did not think he was the one best able to handle it. It is a mystery, perhaps a sign of lingering class envy and perhaps a sign that sole reliance on tax cuts as the bread and butter Republican message is running its course.
Finally, he left at the right moment, before he was looked upon as a spoiler. In a significant way, he made McCain’s job easier at CPAC and no doubt contributed to the warmer than expected reception McCain received. On one hand, you could say that he mathematically had lost and had no choice, but we all have choices to behave well or poorly. He wisely chose the former.