Obama name-checked the “middle class” three times in the space of his 15 minute speech, casting the choice before Congress as one between rewarding the wealthy or saving the vast middle.

“Most Americans, regardless of political party, don’t understand how we can ask a senior citizen to pay more for her Medicare before we ask a corporate jet owner or the oil companies to give up tax breaks that other companies don’t get,” said Obama.

(Last Friday Obama was even more explicit about his middle-class focused appeal — casting himself as fighting for “working stiffs out there, ordinary folks who are struggling everyday.”

Boehner countered on Monday night that the president’s financial policy would wind up hurting the middle class — via the hit small businesses would take — more than it would help.

“This debate isn’t about President Obama and House Republicans … it isn’t about Congress and the White House … it’s about what’s standing between the American people and the future we seek for ourselves and our families,” he said.

The takeaway from each man’s speech is that middle class voters are the big political prize at stake in the debt ceiling debate — and rightly so given the results of recent presidential elections.

The first step in understanding the importance of the middle class in electoral politics is defining what exactly constitutes the “middle class”

And that can be tricky since most people tend to describe themselves as middle class even if their income levels vary well beyond what is commonly accepted as the middle. For the purposes of this exercise we are using households making between $50,000 and $100,000.

In the six elections between 2000 and 2010, those earners have comprised somewhere between 36 percent and 38 percent of the total electorate , according to exit polling.

And the middle class isn’t just big, it’s also an emerging swing constituency.

After Republicans carried middle class voters by 5, 12 and then 12 points in the 2000, 2002 and 2004 elections, Democrats narrowly carried them by two points in 2006 — an election in which widespread fatigue with President George W. Bush led to across-the-board Democratic gains.

Then in 2008 — a presidential year with elevated turnout in all demographic groups — then Illinois Sen. Barack Obama fought Sen. John McCain to a draw (each man took 49 percent) among middle class voters.

The 2010 midterms saw Republicans reassert their edge among the middle class, winning 53 percent to 44 percent over Democrats.

Heading into 2012, President Obama appears to have an early edge with middle class voters — at least on the empathy question.

In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, 53 percent said that Obama cared more about “protecting the economic interests of the middle class” while 35 percent chose Republicans.

Among electorally critical independents, the numbers were about the same with 52 percent saying Obama cared more about the middle class and 33 percent saying Republicans did. (Interestingly, 13 percent of independents said that neither side cared about the middle class — almost triple the number of self-identified Democrats and Republicans who said the same.)

To be clear, a poll showing that Obama is seen as more empathetic to the plight of the middle class is not the same thing as the incumbent winning middle class voters in 2012.

And, with the Republican presidential field almost totally undefined for most voters, it’s not clear whether Obama’s current ratings on the middle class can be sustained all the way until next November.

But, voting tendencies — particularly in a presidential election — do typically corollate to whether or not people think a politician understands their lives.

That’s why Obama has pushed so hard over the past few weeks to paint the debt ceiling fight as one between the people and the powerful. (With apologies to Al Gore).

How successful Obama is in making the case that he is the voice of the middle class between now and November 2012 — on the debt ceiling in particular and the economy more broadly — will be a telling indicator of his chances at a second term.

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