Poetry, Politics, and Data Analysis

How Quantitative Political Poetry Parties Engage Participants in The 2016 Presidential Election

Jordan Pailthorpe
Engagement Lab @ Emerson College


Campaign Limericks is a set of data visualizations and a series of parties where participants remix presidential candidates’ speeches into limericks.

Earlier this month over a dozen community members, students, and academics gathered around easel pads, whiteboards, and pizza boxes to analyze political speeches and write limericks using the 2016 presidential candidate’s top used words and phrases. This event was the first QPPP (Quantitative Political Poetry Party) and the launch of a new Engagement Lab project called Campaign Limericks.

Planned parenthood wants to kill and sell your son / Stick with me and Obama won’t take your gun / The United States wants a real thriller / The American people trust the zodiac killer / Vote president Cruz for real American fun
Party goers wrote limericks on everything from easel pads to post-it notes on pizza boxes

Campaign Limericks is a project by Engagement Lab’s Principal investigator Catherine D’Ignazio and the Institute for Infinitely Small Things where participants quantitatively analyze recent speeches by the top four presidential candidates, remix top words and phrases on the campaign trail, and produce limericks about politics, campaigning and the political process that were never spoken outright (but maybe should have been). This results in a lighthearted fun way to engage with the discourse surrounding the 2016 presidential campaign, but also introduces participants to the process of data analysis.

Participants using DataBasic’s tool WordCounter to analyze the political speeches of presidential candidates.

Instead of leaving the entirety of the poem up to the creative process, they used DataBasic, a free suite of easy-to-use web tools that introduce concepts of working with data (and another Engagement Lab project by Catherine and MIT Center for Civic Media colleague Rahul Bhargava), to understand the top used words in each candidate’s political speeches. This allowed them to write creative, funny poems that also displayed real data on word frequency and use throughout the campaign trail.

color corresponds to the candidate who most frequently spoke that word or phrase while the size of the term is the relative frequency of that word related to other words spoken on the campaign trail.

In the final limericks produced, the color corresponds to the candidate who most frequently spoke that word or phrase while the size of the term is the relative frequency of that word related to other words spoken on the campaign trail.

For instance, in the example above, Ted Cruz was noted as using the word “Hillary” more than any other major presidential candidate, while Donald Trump comes in first for the word “wins”. Size also comes into play, revealing that candidates say the word “real” more often than they say “shock”, though Bernie Sanders says both those words more often than any other candidate.

Here are a few more examples of some of the limericks produced:

The best Limericks taken from our most recent event have been realized as data visualizations in an exhibition space at the Harvard Center for American Political Studies for their Political Analytics Conference.

Host your own QPPP!

Anyone can stage a QPPP using our Campaign Limericks Party Pack, which you can download in the resources section on our website. This PDF has all of the following items:

  • How To Host A Limerick Party: A guide that lays out exactly what you need logistically to run your QPPP
  • Example Limericks: A collection of limericks created for each political candidate to show your partygoers what is possible!
  • Political Candidate Issues and Platforms: A succinct list of each candidate’s policies, platforms, and voting record.
  • Political Candidate Headshot Line-drawings: A line-drawn headshot of each political candidate.
  • A Brief History of Limericks Presentation: To present your partygoers with history of the form!

QPPP’s have been staged in Boston, Hartford, and even Ronald Reagan’s former apartment in Des Moines, IO. Download the party pack, host your own QPPP, and let us know what you produce!



Jordan Pailthorpe
Engagement Lab @ Emerson College

I like making things and playing things and riding things. Product Designer at @nextrequest