J. Austin Ranney, 85; UC Expert on Political Parties and Elections

Times Staff Writer

J. Austin Ranney, an influential political scientist and a widely respected authority on political parties and elections, has died. He was 85.

Ranney died Monday at his home in Berkeley of complications from diabetes and congestive heart failure, said professor Nelson W. Polsby of UC Berkeley’s political science department, which Ranney headed from 1987 to 1991.

“He was a leading worldwide expert on parties, how they functioned and what their role was in the society,” Polsby said.


Though Ranney’s tenure at Berkeley was relatively short, his influence in academia covered decades. He taught at the University of Illinois from 1947 to 1963 and at the University of Wisconsin in Madison from 1963 to 1976. He also was a visiting educator at Yale University, Georgetown University and UC Davis.

From 1975 to 1985, he served as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., as well as on the editorial board of the Institute’s journal Public Opinion.

Born in Cortland, N.Y., Ranney grew up in Southern California, in Corona. A debate star in high school, Ranney went to Northwestern University on a debate scholarship. He earned his master’s degree at the University of Oregon and his doctorate at Yale.

Polsby said everything Ranney wrote “had a great lucidity about it. He was a great explainer.

“In some ways,” Polsby said, “his most interesting book was a study of parliamentary candidate recruitment in Britain. It was the authoritative study of that subject and a very important book for how parties contribute to democracy.”

Other areas of interest were referendums and competition in political parties. He devised a way to study the latter, Polsby said.


Ranney came to Berkeley when the political science department was in decline, Polsby said. As department chairman, Ranney quickly appointed 14 people and revived the department.

After he retired in 1991, Ranney remained an active presence on campus, attending seminars and doing some career counseling at the UC Berkeley Retirement Center, where he was on the board of directors.

Outside the classroom, Ranney was a man of eclectic tastes. He enjoyed football, good music and fine wine, and was a student of the Civil War. An obituary written by colleagues on the UC Berkeley website notes that Ranney was gratified “that in his lifetime he saw the rehabilitation of U.S. Grant’s reputation as a Civil War general.”

He is survived by his wife, Nancy Boland Edgerton; four sons from his first marriage, Jay, Douglas and Gordon of Madison, Wis., and David of Cupertino, Calif.; two stepsons, Scott of Molalla, Ore., and Bruce of Reston, Va.; three granddaughters; and a sister.