In 1980, Ronald Reagan beat Carter by nearly 10 points, 51 percent to 41 percent. In a Gallup Poll released days before the election on Oct. 27, it was Carter who led Reagan 45 percent to 42 percent.
In 1984, Reagan walloped Walter Mondale 58.8 percent to 40 percent, -- the largest electoral landslide in U.S. history. But on Oct. 15, The New York Daily News published a poll showing Mondale with only a 4-point deficit to Reagan, 45 percent to 41 percent. A Harris Poll about the same time showed Reagan with only a 9-point lead. The Oct. 19 New York Times/CBS News Poll had Mr. Reagan ahead of Mondale by 13 points. All these polls underestimated Reagan's actual margin of victory by 6 to 15 points.
In 1988, George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis by a whopping 53.4 percent to 45.6 percent. A New York Times/CBS News Poll on Oct. 5 had Bush leading the Greek homunculus by a statistically insignificant 2 points -- 45 percent to 43 percent. (For the kids out there: Before it became a clearinghouse for anti-Bush conspiracy theories, CBS News was considered a credible journalistic entity.)
A week later -- or one tank ride later, depending on who's telling the story -- on Oct. 13, Bush was leading Dukakis in The New York Times Poll by a mere 5 points.
Admittedly, a 3- to 6-point error is not as crazily wrong as the 6- to 15-point error in 1984. But it's striking that even small "margin of error" mistakes never seem to benefit Republicans.
In 1992, Bill Clinton beat the first President Bush 43 percent to 37.7 percent. (Ross Perot got 18.9 percent of Bush's voters that year.) On Oct. 18, a Newsweek Poll had Clinton winning 46 percent to 31 percent, and a CBS News Poll showed Clinton winning 47 percent to 35 percent.
So in 1992, the polls had Clinton 12 to 15 points ahead, but he won by only 5.3 points.
In 1996, Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole 49 percent to 40 percent. And yet on Oct. 22, 1996, The New York Times/CBS News Poll showed Clinton leading by a massive 22 points, 55 percent to 33 percent.
In 2000, which I seem to recall as being fairly close, the October polls accurately described the election as a virtual tie, with either Bush or Al Gore 1 or 2 points ahead in various polls. But in one of the latest polls to give either candidate a clear advantage, The New York Times/CBS News Poll on Oct. 3, 2000, showed Gore winning by 45 percent to 39 percent.
In the last presidential election the polls were surprisingly accurate -- not including the massively inaccurate Election Day exit poll. In the end, Bush beat John Kerry 50.7 percent to 48.3 percent in 2004. Most of the October polls showed the candidates in a dead-heat, with Bush 1 to 3 points ahead. So either pollsters got a whole lot better starting in 2004, or Democrats stole more votes in that election than we even realized.