06/28/2014 07:00 EDT | Updated 08/28/2014 05:59 EDT

How one college kid forecast the electoral earthquake that rattled U.S. politics

ASHLAND, Va. - A 21-year-old college student would be allowed to put a rather unique title on the research paper he's writing this summer: How I Beat the Entire American Political Establishment in Predicting a Historic Election Result.

Nobody in Washington foresaw the once-in-a-century defeat this month of a congressional majority leader that has drawn comparisons to natural disasters — a tsunami, an earthquake — in the way it has rattled national politics.

Elliot Meyer did.

The third-year political science undergrad might be the only neutral observer in the country to have declared that a no-hope upstart would unseat congressional power-player Eric Cantor in a recent Virginia Republican primary.

It didn't hurt that the no-hoper was his former economics professor. Or that Meyer had spent the spring shadowing that zero-chance campaign as part of a political-science project at school.

A week before the primary, Meyer walked into a project supervisor's office and made the kind of prediction that might have gotten him laughed out of any Washington watering hole: Cantor's going down.

He'd just witnessed a rally the night before that was so crowded he had to park his car in another neighbourhood. Having watched teacher David Brat's campaign grow — from early meetings at a fishing-and-hunting store surrounded by animal pelts on the walls, finally to a jam-packed country club with a radio celebrity in attendance — he was ready to make the call.

"He said, 'Dave Brat's going to pull this off,'" recalled Lauren Bell, the political-science professor supervising his project at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.

"And I said, 'You've spent far too much time with this campaign. You've gone native. There is no way.'"

Bell had assigned him to the project. When he expressed interest in using a research grant to study a grassroots political movement, she gave him a book by Richard Fenno, "Senators on the Campaign Trail." Then she put him in touch with two underdog candidates she knew — a close friend running in California, and Brat, her colleague at the college.

The American political world is still assessing the fallout of Brat's stunning 11-point win. It toppled a rival, Cantor, who was the presumed heir to the most powerful position in the U.S. Congress, House Speaker, which would have made him third in line to the presidency.

The June 10 result has been described as evidence of a resurgent Tea Party; a triumph over the Republicans' Wall Street wing; the fatal blow to any chance of legislative co-operation in an already unproductive Congress.

But Meyer says the national media blew the Cantor story — both before and after June 10. Its sweeping post-election narratives are already being dialed down now, following a series of subsequent wins by Republican establishment figures.

Meyer said the campaign was badly read from the start, when the underdog Brat declined an invitation to appear at a conservative event in Washington. The candidate explained that he was busy with school finals.

"The national media... basically just said, he's not serious, he's not taking this seriously, he's just shot himself in the foot," Meyer said over breakfast last weekend near the Randolph-Macon campus.

"Which is funny — because I would have predicted just the opposite. I said, 'This proves he's not a Washington insider.'"

He said that refusal helped him distinguish himself from Cantor. The front-runner was increasingly viewed as out of touch, and less driven by the concerns of constituents at home than his own career advancement in D.C.. Meyer recalled one picture on Cantor's website that summed up that distance — it showed him speaking to schoolchildren in his district, over Skype.

Ambition might explain why he voted against disaster funds for his own district, following a 2011 earthquake. It perhaps earned him points as a fiscal conservative but also illustrated, Bell said, that his priorities lay beyond Virginia.

Cantor's underlying weakness was apparent in a recent poll that showed him with only a 30 per cent approval rating in his district. But he started the campaign with two big advantages: money and name recognition.

He retained that financial advantage, outspending Brat 20-to-1. Meanwhile, the fame gap narrowed.

An over-the-top attack ad against Brat backfired, Meyer said.

The Cantor campaign sent a mailout smearing him as a "liberal college professor" — a damning slur against someone courting Republican primary voters. The leaflet, however, made people curious about Brat. Many checked out his website. According to Meyer, they liked what they saw. And they felt duped.

"I talked to one woman who said she's voted for Cantor every time until this election," he said. The turning point came when she looked into Brat and concluded, "'Oh my God, Eric Cantor is lying to me.'"

Finally, Brat had some notoriety. National conservative talk-radio hosts were soon joining in. One of them, Laura Ingraham, appeared at the big golf-course rally. The Tea Party commentariat has been angry at the Republican leadership — for being too weak, too ready to cave into the president on big fights like the debt default.

They took it out on Cantor. Brat started getting radio play as a principled conservative who'd stand up to the crony capitalists in the Republican party. He'd fight them and their corporate welfare, bank bailouts, and immigration agenda championed by big business.

The new narrative in Washington is that immigration reform is dead — and it might well be. But in reality, Meyer said, Brat barely discussed the issue during the campaign.

What he really wanted to talk about was his so-called Republican Creed and its principles: A strong military; faith in God; free enterprise; equal rights; fiscal discipline; and limited government.

He'd go through each point in wonkish speeches that resembled college seminars. He took questions from the audience. In fact, Meyer said it was a bit like being back in Brat's microeconomics class.

The contrast with Cantor was unmistakable. On the day of the vote, he was in Washington meeting lobbyists at Starbucks.

Cantor had been reassured by polls telling him he had a 34 per cent advantage. But his high-profile pollster had neglected a rudimentary detail in the methodology: Democrats and Independents.

The rules in Virginia this year allowed anyone to vote in any primary. Since there had been no Democratic primary this year, the only chance to vote in a nomination race was on the Republican side. As it turned out, these voters didn't like Cantor much, either. Their votes were one factor in the defeat.

So what's the effect on U.S. politics?

Clearly, Washington is on high alert for signs of a Tea Party takeover of the GOP. But three bits of fresh evidence suggest it might not be happening, at least not yet: Moderate Republicans have won other primaries, on and after June 10. Even in Virginia, some of the people who voted to dump Cantor weren't Republicans at all. And, in the subsequent secret-ballot vote to replace Cantor as caucus leader, the Republicans picked the more moderate candidate.

But there is an older lesson, summed up by someone who actually held the office Cantor so famously coveted. Following a bitter youthful defeat, Tip O'Neill adopted the phrase that served as his mantra for a half-century, through a legendary career as House Speaker: "All politics is local."

"Maybe the effect," Bell said, "will be that members run different campaigns, more attentive to the folks back home."