Gates County is a small rural county located in the northeastern part of the state, on the Virginia border. The county seat is Gatesville.
The Great Dismal Swamp is located in parts of the county, and was a haven for runaway slaves during the antebellum era.
Gates County has not gone Republican in a presidential election since Richard Nixon’s landslide victory over George McGovern in 1972.
1988: D+23 (Solid Democratic)
1992: D+22 (Solid Democratic)
1996: D+23 (Solid Democratic)
2000: D+13 (Strong Democratic)
2004: D+8 (Leans Democratic)
2008: R+2 (Toss-Up)
2012: D+0 (Toss-Up)
Forecast: Gates has been a solidly Democratic county since the time of Jim Crow, when white Southerners overwhelmingly voted Democrat and blacks were effectively disenfranchised. Once blacks gained the right to vote, Gates’ continued Democratic domination was assured. In addition, whites in the Albemarle Sound region were much slower than the rest of the state to come into the Republican fold.
But Gates County is changing, dramatically. The county is still overwhemingly rural, but an influx of people from the Virginia Beach area is changing the political climate in Gates County – and its demographics. While African Americans are leaving the county for greener pastures, the white population in Gates grew by over 25%. Richard Burr carried the county by 5 points in 2010, even though it was won by John Kerry by about the same margin in 2004. Gates actually trended Democratic in 2012, but this was more due to its high black population than anything else. It still maintains a very slight Democratic PVI.
The high growth that stimulated Republican gains in the county is in decline, but should this growth continue then Republicans will become increasingly dominant. To put it simply, African Americans are likely to decline as a share of the 2016 presidential electorate, while declining as a share of the population at the same time. In fact, the African American population fell from 39% of the population to 33% from 2000 to 2010. That does not bode well for Democrats.
But it’s not all that likely to matter much. Even though Gates grew by 16% in the last decade, the county still has less than 15,000 residents, rendering it practically inconsequential in political terms.