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Despite polling, uncertainty is the only thing certain in Democratic race

The only certainty in the Democratic race right now is uncertainty.

With just 20 days to go before the first contest, new polls show a close, volatile race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in both early nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire. But more than momentum for Sanders and trouble for Clinton, the data underscores the uncertainty in a race that few expected to be so tight.

For months, the Democratic race had settled into an equilibrium in which Sanders held a slight edge in New Hampshire while Clinton had a slightly larger lead in Iowa. But a new Quinnipiac University poll out Tuesday of Iowa Democrats showed Sanders pulling ahead of the front-runner by 3 percentage points. At the same time, a new Monmouth University poll of New Hampshire Democrats found the Vermont senator expanding his lead there to a whopping 14 percentage points.

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On their face, the polls look very good for Sanders, whose allies immediately hailed them. "The momentum for Bernie is real. You can feel it in the air, and you can definitely feel it on the ground,” said Working Families Party National Director Dan Cantor in an email. The liberal group endorsed Sanders last month, and championed Tuesday’s endorsement by “Let's be clear, this has always been an uphill climb for the Sanders team, but today, you can see the path up the hill clearer than ever."

The numbers come as Clinton has stepped up her attacks on Sanders, which the underdog said Monday is a sign that the front-runner is “in serious trouble.” Even Chelsea Clinton, on her debut outing in 2016, took some major swings at Sanders Tuesday.

But a more accurate assessment of the state of the race is one of deep uncertainty. “George Gallup called polling in primaries a fool's errand, and having been through this a few cycles, I know what he was talking about,” said Andy Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

Monmouth’s New Hampshire poll shows a wild swing in the Granite State, with Sanders leading by 7 points in September, then losing by 3 in November, and now apparently leading by 14. In Iowa, polling averages, which tend to be more reliable than individual polls, still show Clinton leading by 5 percentage points. Before Tuesday, just two surveys since February had shown Sanders ahead in the state. One was another Quinnipiac poll from September showing him up 1 point and the other claimed Sanders was beating Clinton by 10 percentage points — a clear outlier.

On Sunday, NBC News and The Wall Street Journal released polls of Iowa and New Hampshire that likely better reflect reality, showing a closer race, but with leadership unchanged.

The biggest problem in trying to predict the outcome in either state is that many voters still haven’t made up their minds.

According to exit polls from 2008, a stunning 48 percent of New Hampshire Democratic primary voters said they chose their candidate in the final week before voting. That includes 17 percent who said they decided on the day of the primary, 21 percent who said they made up their minds in the final 3 days, and 10 percent who said they settled on their candidate in final week.

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In Iowa, where turnout is lower and caucus-goers tend to be more deeply involved in politics, there are fewer last-minute decisions. However, a still very substantial 27 percent of Democratic caucus-goers said they made up in their mind in the final week before the contest, according to 2008 entrance polls, including 11 percent who said they chose on the same day.

Both Iowa and New Hampshire are already notoriously difficult to poll. Heading into the 2008 caucuses and primaries, many surveys predicted Clinton winning Iowa and Obama winning New Hampshire — both were wrong.

And complicating matters, Sanders’ strategy in both states is based explicitly on defying historical precedent and getting unlikely voters and caucus-goers to turn out for him.

In Iowa, Sanders is counting on first time caucus-goers. He holds a wide lead over Clinton with that group — 66 percent to 26 percent -- while Clinton leads 52 percent to 41 percent among those who have caucused before, according to the Quinnipiac poll. But how many of those people will actually turn out on a cold February night is anyone’s guess, since they are by nature less reliable participants.

The best Sanders aides can say is they hope total turnout is somewhere between that of 2004, when 125,000 Democrats turned out to caucus throughout Iowa, and 2008, when a record-breaking 239,000 Democrats turned out. If there’s unusually high turnout, Sanders wins. If not, he loses.

New Hampshire, meanwhile, has earned its nickname as the “graveyard for pollsters.” With its primary just nine days after Iowa’s caucuses, it’s nearly impossible to know how the outcome of the earlier caucus will impact Granite Staters’ decisions.

And there, Sanders is betting big on young people, undeclared voters (the 40% of the electorate who is not registered with either party) and new voters. All three groups tend to have lower turnout rates, so how many actually vote is also difficult to predict.

No matter what, though, the races in both states are likely to be very close. Aides to both campaigns have predicted narrow wins either way, within 5 points or less. Clinton’s campaign has said for months that they expected the race to tighten, though few reporters believed it or thought the campaign really believed it themselves.

One silver lining for Clinton and her team with regard to the tough polling numbers is that the data could help right-size expectations of her performance.

RELATED: NBC online poll: Trump, Clinton retain double-digit national leads

With sky-high expectations, the media and others will judge even a narrow win as a sign of trouble for Clinton. And dangerously high expectations can discourage voters from turning out, volunteers from working, and contributors from opening their wallets, since they may believe their candidate doesn’t need their help.

Sanders, meanwhile, has been having the opposite problem. While Clinton has been trying to convince supporters and the media that she can actually lose, Sanders has been working to convince people that he can actually win.

“[T]o the disbelief of the corporate media and the political establishment — Bernie is on the verge of scoring historic upsets in Iowa and New Hampshire,” reads one typical Sanders fundraising email sent Sunday.

A fundraising email sent under Clinton’s name took the opposite tone. “The primary race in New Hampshire is neck and neck — a loss there could be a sharp blow to all the work we've done.” 

Even if Clinton wins, few expected a septuagenarian democratic socialist would force Clinton to send such dire warnings to her supporters.